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Students await Brown's decision on Dream Act


Tonatiuh Garcia, an illegal immigrant since he was nine months old, is not waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown to approve legislation the would make the 21-year-old college student and others like him eligible for state-funded financial aid.

Garcia, a Santa Rosa Junior College graduate now attending Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, is paying for his own education — about $2,600 a quarter for tuition; $500 a quarter for books and $700 a month for a small studio apartment.

But legislation known as the California Dream Act would lessen Garcia's financial burden.

AB 131, which is headed for Brown's desk after recent approval by the Legislature, would make state financial aid available to illegal immigrants studying at the University of California, California State University and California Community College systems.

Under the bill, Cal Grants and institutional grants such as university grants and scholarships, work-study and loan programs would be available. At the community college level, the bill would also allow qualifying illegal immigrants to receive a fee waiver.

AB 131 is actually the second part of the Dream Act. On July 25, Brown signed the first part, AB 130, which made illegal immigrants eligible to receive private scholarships.

Supporters say the Dream Act, which would cost an estimated $40 million, about 1 percent of the state's $3.5 billion budget, is an investment in the future of California.

Luis Dario Qui?nez, a legislative aide to Assemblymember Gilbert Cedillo, the author of the bill, said the state is expected to be short 1 million college educated workers by 2025.

"This is an opportunity for us to help fill that void with these undocumented students," Qui?nez said in an e-mail response to questions.

Further, the bill specifically provides that the number of awards received by California residents through campus-administered programs not be diminished as a result of expanding access to illegal immigrants.

But opponents say the bill rewards illegal immigrants at the expense of U.S. citizens and legal residents who are trying to get a college education. And once educated, there remains no clear legal path toward employment.

And while the number of awards would not be diminished, a legislative analysis suggests the bill could result in a change in the amount of money awarded to students.

In a statement released last week, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, strongly urged the governor to veto the bill, because "in these times, our limited resources should be reserved for citizens and legal residents."

Donnelly said the bill "gives away false promises to students here illegally" because after they graduate they will still not be eligible to work.

Dream Act supporters, however, said they are banking on the future, which they hope will include an overhaul of the country's immigration system.

"What we're trying to do here in California is get ready for that time when these students are eligible to work either because they become U.S. citizens or permanent residents which is bound to happen," said Qui?nez.

Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Brown supports the principles of the Dream Act. But she said Brown will be looking at "cost containment" issues, given the current budget crisis.

The Cal Grant program provides up to $12,192 annually, while the average private scholarship was about $3,500 for the University of California, $2,200 for Cal State and $1,000 for California community colleges.

Garcia already benefits from AB 540, a 2001 bill signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis that allows any student, regardless of immigration status, who has attended high school in California for three or more years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and state universities.

Cedillo's office previously reported that during the 2009-2010 school year 2,240 of the 237,000 students attending a University of California campus and 3,643 of the 440,000 California State University students were "AB 540 students." About 36,203 or the 2.89 million junior college student students were in that category.

Garcia, who is studying journalism at Cal Poly, said he'll keep going to college regardless of whether the Dream Act is signed by the governor.

When asked what he will do when he graduates in a couple of years, Garcia said he may have to go to Mexico for a job.

"I wish I could stay here," he said. "I've been here since I was nine months old...I just want the opportunity to become something in the country that I love."