By TOVIN LAPAN -- Santa Cruz Sentinel
State Assemblymen Gil Cedillo and Luis Alejo are trying to find the elusive answer to a question posed by poet Langston Hughes: "What happens to a dream deferred?"
Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, has introduced the California Dream Act, which would give undocumented students access to financial aid, three times in the state Legislature. It has passed three times, and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it all three times.
In January, Cedillo, along with principal co-author Alejo, D-Watsonville, announced he would bring a new incarnation of the bill to the Assembly floor this session. Alejo, a freshman assemblyman, has thrown his support behind the bill after meeting numerous undocumented immigrants over the years who were excellent students but did not have the means to attend college, he said.
While some state law makers hope the Dream Act, in the words of Hughes, dries up "like a raisin in the sun," proponents are encouraged by Gov. Jerry Brown's comments supporting the bill during his 2010 campaign.
"There are only so many dollars going into education," said state Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who is on the Senate Committee for Education. "To fund those here illegally at the cost of those here legally is not good policy."
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that every year 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools, and 40 percent, 26,000, of those are in California. While California's Latino population is at the forefront of the debate, students from Asia and the Pacific Islands make up 40 percent of the U.S. undocumented student population, according to the Asian Pacific Coalition at UCLA.
"There is money. Thousands of dollars in Cal Grants are not being utilized by students every year," Alejo said. "We have a whole initiative going on right now to promote Cal Grants so more students will apply."
Huff is not swayed by Cedillo's strategy of splitting the bill into two portions - one providing access to privately administered aid and the other to state-funded Cal Grants - saying there is a finite amount of money to go around, especially with large cuts to higher education looming.
Facing a $25.4 billion state budget deficit, Brown has suggested cutting $500 million each from UC and CSU, and $400 million from community colleges.
"We would have to create thousands of new jobs to support the expenditures from this bill, so even if you agree with the principal it doesn't make budgetary sense," Huff said.
To qualify for the Dream Act students must file for AB 540 status, the 2001 bill that offered in-state tuition to undocumented students, children of military personnel and others who attended California high schools for at least three years. Under the law, undocumented immigrants must agree to apply for legal status as soon as they are eligible.
"These are smart, hard working kids on a path to naturalization," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who is on the education committee. "It's a simple question for me. Do I want them in the classroom, or do I want them hanging out on a street corner?"
UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal says undocumented students, many of whom were brought to the country at a young age by family, are "an innocent group of people who work very hard," and would like the prohibitions lifted.
"The universities need the right to raise money for these students. That's the easiest thing to have happen. The regents could approve that," he said. "Second is to allow some of our return to aid money - we hold back a third of paid tuition to use for students who can't afford tuition - to be used for these students. And the third thing is to make those students eligible for Cal Grants. The California Dream Act would accomplish that."
If approved, California would be the third state to offer financial aid to undocumented students after Texas and New Mexico.
All of the legislators interviewed agreed the federal government must work on comprehensive immigration reform, so states do not continue with piecemeal initiatives.
AT A GLANCE
CALIFORNIA DREAM ACT
The state legislation has been previously proposed by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, three times. The current incarnation is split into two bills, AB 130 and AB 131. The first bill would allow students who meet the in-state tuition requirements to apply for and receive specified financial aid administered by California's public colleges and universities. The types of aid these students would be eligible for include: Board of Governors Fee Waiver and Institutional Student Aid, a student aid program administered by the attending college or university. The second bill would allow students who meet the in-state tuition requirements to apply for and receive Cal Grants.
SOURCE: California State Legislature, www.legislature.ca.gov/port-bilinfo.html