By Michael Gardner6:39 p.m.April 9, 2014
U-T San Diego

University of California President Janet Napolitano is pushing for more college loans for unauthorized immigrants AP

SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers and top university administrators are pushing legislation that would establish a loan fund to further help students who are in the country illegally pay for their college education.

Under current law, unauthorized immigrants already qualify for state tuition assistance. But they are barred from receiving federal aid. The proposed loan program is designed to help fill the gap, estimated at $3,000 for California State University students and $6,000 for those attending a University of California campus.

The legislation would set aside $9.2 million for the initial pool of money designed to be self-sustaining as the loans are repaid. Of that, $6.9 million would come from the state treasury and $2.3 million would come from the various campus budgets.

Individual loans would be capped at $4,000 per year and $20,000 in total. The loans would have to be repaid with interest within 10 years of graduation.

“This is a short-term investment that will bring a long term gain to California,” said Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Huntington Beach Democrat carrying the measure.

The legislation is expected to be contested by some Republicans and others who believe tuition assistance should be reserved for citizens and those here legally.

California lawmakers have been gradually overhauling financial aid law so that unauthorized immigrants can qualify. The first milestone came in 2001 when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill allowing any student regardless of immigration status to qualify for in-state tuition. Critics challenged that allowance, saying it circumvented a federal law aimed at denying public benefits to those here illegally. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 refused to intervene, allowing the California law to stand.

“The California law essentially grants illegal aliens, which even California concedes cannot live or work lawfully in the state, one of the most lucrative benefits in the country,” said Mike Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration reform Law Institute, said in challenging the state’s move.

More recently, the state has added more provisions to help unauthorized immigrants qualify for aid and scholarships. The latest proposed expansion would particularly help the so-called “dreamers” — young unauthorized immigrants who meet a number of conditions, including graduating from an in-state high school.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved the legislation 5-0, but neither of the two Republicans voted. There was no public opposition.

“I have supported legislation to open our public schools to the dreamers. Yet to open the doors without the necessary financial support amounts to an empty gesture,” said Sen. Marty Block, a San Diego Democrat who sits on the committee.

Sen. Mark Wyland, a Solana Beach Republican who also serves on the panel, abstained, expressing frustration with Congress for not resolving immigration policy,

”It is crying out to be addressed and has been for years and years. My fervent hope is it is addressed. In the meantime this bill will get out — no doubt about it,” he said.

Wyland appeared sympathetic to the students.

“We have these incredible young people who have worked very hard in school,” he said, noting many did not speak English fluently and lived in poverty. “And then they graduate and get admitted but are denied some of these funds.”

California would not be the first state to offer the program. Texas and Minnesota have similar revolving loan opportunities.

University of California President Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona and once President Barack Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security, is a leading voice behind the campaign.

“These are remarkable students and they have remarkable stories,” she told the state Senate committee. “Their accomplishments should not be disregarded nor there futures jeopardized because of their undocumented status.”

Napolitano stressed that passage would not give these students an unfair advantage..

“Let me be clear: this is about leveling the financial aid playing field — not about providing benefits to one group that are not available to another,” she said.

UC officials estimates there are about 2,000 undocumented students enrolled and, of those, 1,300 may be eligible for the new program if signed into law. There were no figures available specifically for UC San Diego. CSU officials report that there are about 6,400 undocumented students systemwide and 267 at San Diego State. About 1,200 could be in line for a loan.

The unanimous vote sends the legislation to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Given the dominance of Democrats in the Legislature, and some support among Republicans, the legislation is expected to advance to the governor’s desk.

Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Escondido is one of those Republicans backing the loan bill.

“A quality college education has proved to be the best ladder for social mobility for families,” he said. “Let’s keep in mind that this is not free money. This is a loan with the same existing repayment requirements that all California student borrowers face.”

However, criticism is likely to emerge focusing on the point that if the state and campuses have money to hand out it should go to expand assistance to needy students here legally.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on Senate Bill 1210, but he has signed a number of recent bills expanding the rights of immigrants regardless of their legal status

The debate over the legislation comes at a crucial time for both parties.

This is an election year and Latinos are an important voting bloc. Republicans have been trying to repair relations with Latino voters after years of pushing policies many of them perceive as anti-immigrant.

But new reports have surfaced that a leading GOP candidate for governor, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, referred to illegal immigration as a “war” — in 2006 — remarks he did not disavow this week. The other primary contender, former federal treasury official Neel Kashkari, and several Republican leaders moved to distance themselves from Donnelly and his comments.

Meanwhile, Democrats have an interesting race-based flare up of their own. Latinos and African-American lawmakers had been pressing to seek a ballot measure asking voters to allow race to once again be considered a factor in college admissions. But a bloc of Asian-American legislators helped shelve the measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 5. It is believed that a contingent of Latinos, including Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, retaliated by withdrawing their endorsement of Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, for Congress.