Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) has spent much of his legislative career trying to persuade lawmakers to grant financial help to undocumented immigrant students attending state colleges or universities. Until recently, his proposals stalled. Some opponents argued that extending such benefits would encourage more illegal immigration and displace deserving students who are in the U.S. legally. Others said such efforts would give false hope to students who would be ineligible for jobs once they graduate.
With AB 130, a bill that is part of proposed legislation known as the California Dream Act, Cedillo has addressed those concerns and produced a bill worthy of adoption. It has passed both houses of the Legislature, and Gov. Jerry Brown should make it law.
The measure would make illegal immigrant students eligible only for private scholarships derived from nonstate funding. State and federal financial assistance would remain off-limits. In practical terms, it would mean that those students who already qualify for in-state tuition under a 2001 state law could apply for private funds donated to schools. Currently, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for any financial help, including private scholarships. Last year, the University of California awarded more than $45 million in undergraduate scholarships funded by donor-provided gifts and endowments.
California's public colleges and universities and the students who depend on them have struggled along with the rest of the state in this slow emergence from recession. The UC's are accepting more foreign and out-of-state students to help offset budget cuts. And students have faced tuition increases, larger classes, and such limited choices that many can't graduate from community colleges in just two years.
AB 130 won't alleviate the crisis, but it will crack open a window of opportunity for those students who, through no fault of their own, were brought here illegally, who studied hard and earned a spot in a college or university but now can't afford it.
Some will object to granting illegal immigrants benefits that they believe should be reserved for legal residents. But barring undocumented immigrants from receiving private scholarships is both hard-hearted social policy and foolish economics. Society already has invested in these students. Most of them graduated from public schools. And few are likely to return to a country they have no memory of. As long as they are here, it is just as much in society's interests as it is in theirs that they be productive, taxpaying workers with solid educational credentials.
Only Congress can resolve the immigration issues confronting these young people; it can and should adopt legislation to allow those who came as children or served in the military to legalize their status and participate in the economy. But it's unclear whether Washington has the political courage to take on the issue anytime soon.
Until then, Cedillo's bill is good for the state's long-term health. It does no one any good to raise a permanent underclass of immigrants who aspire to succeed, only to confront educational rules that make that harder rather than easier.