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California Senate panel OKs part of Dream Act

The key committee clears the most significant obstacle to the bill that would give college students who are illegal immigrants access to public aid. A foe calls the bill 'an outrage.'

August 26, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Luis Garcia, left, a Los Angeles high school art teacher, and other immigrant advocates rally in support of the California Dream Act at the Ronald Reagan State Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Luis Garcia, left, a Los Angeles high school art teacher, and other immigrant… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

In a major victory for immigrant advocates, a key state Senate committee cleared the most significant obstacle to a bill that would give college students who are illegal immigrants access to public aid for the first time.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the final part of a two-bill package known as the California Dream Act, which would allow students who qualify for reduced in-state tuition to apply for an estimated $40 million in Cal Grants, community college fee waivers, and other public scholarship and grant programs.

For Javiera Infante, a 24-year-old Los Angeles Valley College student from Chile, the committee action brought her dreams of becoming a Spanish-literature professor closer to reality. Infante, who entered the United States legally with her family at age 12 but overstayed her visa, said her mother works as a day-care assistant but that money is so tight her family often has to choose between buying food and paying for schooling.

"This will be a huge burden off my back and take away the anxiety I have every semester trying to figure out how I'm going to pay my tuition and books," Infante said.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), said he expected the bill to pass the Senate and Assembly next week and land on the governor's desk soon after.

Versions of the bill have passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature since 2006 but were vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. On Thursday, the committee's vote was split 6 to 3 along party lines.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged support for the bill's concept, saying in a Fresno campaign event last year that he would have signed the bill Schwarzenegger vetoed. Last month he signed a companion bill, AB 130, that gave undocumented students access to $88 million in private scholarships and grants for the first time.

Cedillo said he had worked closely with Brown to address the governor's concerns about the measure's costs given the state's economic distress. To reduce costs, Cedillo pushed back the program's start by six months and removed a provision that would have expanded the pool of eligible students to graduates of adult and technical schools.

As passed, the bill limits the program to high school graduates who attended California high schools for at least three years.

"The governor has articulated his commitment to the ideas and values in the Dream Act, and we have done everything that's been asked to put a bill in front of the governor he can sign," Cedillo said.

Opponents say the state can ill afford new benefits for anyone, let alone illegal immigrants. Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform called the bill "an outrage" to Californians.

But proponents include immigrant rights activists, faith-based organizations and both labor and business groups. Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said it was vital for the state's economic future that immigrant students be equipped with education and skills to replace the millions of baby boomers who are set to retire in the next decade.

"In order for us to compete, we have to make sure we make every effort to provide the young people of our society as good of an education as we can," he said.

Those young people include Sofia Campos, a 21-year-old UCLA student, and her two siblings: one studying computer science at UC San Diego and the other who plans to study marine biology at UC Santa Barbara. The Campos family came to Los Angeles legally from Peru in 1996 but overstayed their visa; Sofia said her father, a software entrepreneur, lost his business amid the political and economic turmoil of the time.

Their father stressed the value of education, pushing Sofia to achieve a 4.2 grade-point average at Eagle Rock High School and win acceptance to UCLA — where she commutes by bus, four hours a day.

"The most important thing is that this bill will give students in high school and middle school the confidence and comfort to pursue higher education," she said. "I'm really excited that it will finally pass after all the work we've done."

The Senate committee's action comes just days after the Obama administration announced it would review 300,000 cases of undocumented students, workers and others facing deportation and put on hold those considered "low-priority" — most likely, nonviolent cases.

And earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's policy of extending reduced in-state tuition to undocumented students.

The favorable developments have heartened immigrant activists, who have become increasingly distraught over the harsh state and local laws aimed at illegal immigrants and the lack of progress in pushing forward a comprehensive overhaul of the federal immigration system.

It is not known how many undocumented students will be eligible to apply for the aid. About 41,000 students — undocumented immigrants and out-of-state residents who attended California high schools — in the UC, Cal State and community college systems receive reduced in-state tuition, less than 1% of total enrollment.

But a Senate fiscal analysis estimated the bill's annual costs at $13 million for Cal Grants, which award up to $12,192 annually, up to $15 million for community college fee waivers and up to $12 million in institutional aid for UC and CSU.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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