Democrats in Albany Propose Giving Illegal Immigrants Access to Aid for College


Published: January 16, 2013

Responding to more than two years of lobbying by immigrants’ advocates, the Democratic majority in the New York State Assembly threw its support on Wednesday behind a comprehensive bill that would make state financial aid available to illegal immigrants at colleges and universities.

The bill would open up several state tuition-assistance programs to illegal immigrants and create a private scholarship fund to help pay for their higher education.

Elements of the legislation had been proposed in piecemeal in past legislative sessions but had not become law. As a result, immigrants’ advocates stepped up their campaign for a more comprehensive and streamlined strategy, centered on a single measure with several provisions.

The Democrats introduced the bill as the immigration debate shifts to the top of the national agenda.

President Obama, who benefited from a record turnout of Latino voters in his re-election in November, has vowed to move quickly on an overhaul of the immigration system, including providing a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

While Democratic state lawmakers are solidly behind the new state bill, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and Republicans in the State Senate have not said whether they would back it.

The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said that just as New York this week became the first state to tighten its gun laws after the Connecticut school massacre, so too should it get out ahead in the debate over immigration policy.

“This is an issue that’s on the national scene and when New York does something, everybody takes notice,” Mr. Silver said in a telephone interview. “I believe it’s important that New York puts this out so everyone can take notice.”

He said the bill was justified because many of the immigrants it was intended to help were brought to the country as young children and had been raised as Americans.

“They know no other country, they came as infants, they should have equal access,” he said. “It’s about fairness.”
If the bill passes, New York would become the fourth state — after Texas, New Mexico and California — to offer state financial aid to illegal immigrants. Since 2002, illegal immigrants have been allowed to pay in-state tuition at state universities in New York.

The bill would require that illegal immigrants satisfy certain conditions to become eligible for tuition-assistance programs, including having attended a high school in New York for at least two years and having graduated or received an equivalency certificate in the state. In addition, students would need to have lived with parents or guardians while they attended high school.

The bill, called the Dream Act, borrows its name from a piece of federal legislation, stalled in Congress, that provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Unlike the federal bill, the state measure would not offer young immigrants a chance to gain legal status.

Immigrants’ advocates urged state lawmakers to act swiftly on it.

“On substance, it’s good because it puts all the ideas in one bill, and politically, it’s great because it’s clear where the leadership is,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of theNew York Immigration Coalition.

It is not clear how the State Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and an independent faction of Democrats, will respond to the measure.

Representatives from a group of immigrant advocacy groups are scheduled to meet with a senior aide to Governor Cuomo in two weeks to discuss the bill and other legislative issues.