Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent signing of the Dream Act allowing illegal immigrants to receive state grants for college could affect hundreds of students in the South Bay – a sizable chunk of all the undocumented college students across California.
Officials estimate there are 200 undocumented students at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and another 600 at El Camino College near Torrance. (Harbor College couldn’t provide an estimate Thursday.) They are among the roughly 10,200 across California who, beginning in January 2013, can apply for Cal Grants or other forms of aid.
Among them is Maria Garcia, a communications major at CSU Dominguez Hills who remembers sleeping on the ground in the desert with her father and sister on the way over the border at age 12.
“My dad had to stay up to take care of me and my sister because there were snakes,” said Garcia, who went on to become a top student – and a graduation speaker – at Camino Nuevo High in Los Angeles. “We didn’t have sleeping bags.”
The legislation comes at a time when the topic of illegal immigration is particularly heated. In the absence of a comprehensive federal immigration policy, states have been filling the void, passing a bevy of policies ranging from the hard-line approach taken in Alabama and Arizona to the relatively more progressive policies in Texas and California.
Signed Saturday by Brown, Assembly Bill 131 has triggered a firestorm of protest and praise across the nation, so much so that the author of the bill, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the intensity of the buzz has taken him by surprise.
“I’ve been working on these issues for a long time, and I’m not unfamiliar with the attention that comes with it,” he told the Daily Breeze on Thursday. “But we went five days in a row, getting calls from the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor. It was like `bam, bam, bam.’ It has been nonstop since Saturday.”
The new law’s fiercest critic is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-San Bernardino, who is spearheading an effort to overturn it. Donnelly argues that the bill is unfair because it grants tax dollars to families that have broken the law when many U.S. citizens are struggling to make ends meet.
“We have just created a massive new entitlement that specifically goes to people who are going to break our laws by coming here,” he told the Breeze.
He added that the argument stating that the students in question were whisked over the border at a young age is “specious.”
“Take a person who stole somebody’s identity or forged a check,” he said. “Then they get arrested. What about their 1-year-old? There you go – exact same argument. It doesn’t play. It is not the purpose of the government to save children from the consequences of a parent’s choice.”
AB 131 is the second half of the Dream Act, the first of which was signed by Brown in July. The first portion, AB 130, allows undocumented students to compete for financial aid from private sources.
The Dream Act isn’t the first piece of California legislation making it easier for undocumented students to attain a college degree. Back in 2001, AB 540 allowed such students to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges so long as they met the criteria, which includes having attended a California high school for at least three years and possession of a high school diploma or GED.
Officials estimate that AB 131 will cost $14.5 million a year. This amounts to about 1 percent of the annual Cal Grant outlay.
Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, estimates that about 5,500 undocumented students will be eligible for a Cal Grant. That’s a little more than half of the roughly 10,200 enrolled in California’s community colleges and state universities. (The bulk of them – 9,000 – attend community colleges.)
Fuentes-Michel said the average recipient of a Cal Grant has maintained a grade point average of 3.2 or better.
“These are good students who are getting the grants,” she said.
Fuentes-Michel said it has been widely reported – incorrectly – that illegal immigrants will receive grants only if there is money left over after all legal citizens have received them. She said that stipulation applies only to the competitive grants that typically go to older students who are returning to school after leaving the work force.
But the bulk of the Cal Grants program doles out money to younger students right out of high school. Undocumented students who meet the qualifications for these “entitlement grants” will be eligible for funds, she said.
Earlier this summer, AB 131 passed along party lines in both the state Senate and the Assembly.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, said he supported both halves of the Dream Act because he believes children should not be punished for the actions of their parents.
“The Bible says the son will not bear the punishment for the sins of the father,” he said. “That’s also a founding principle in America. We don’t punish people based on what their parents may have done. This country judges each individual based on their own accomplishments.”
At Cal State Dominguez Hills, a campus club called Espiritu de Nuestro Futuro serves as a support group for undocumented students, who are often referred to as “AB 540” students after the 2001 law.
But it includes only 20 members, or about 10 percent of the campus’ estimated undocumented population.
The group’s president, Celina Ixta, attributes the discrepancy to students’ fears of calling attention to their immigration status. Ixta, who was taken over the border by her parents as a 1-year-old, said she understands this fear, adding that she drives to the Carson campus from her home in Wilmington at her own risk. (California doesn’t issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.)
“Always I try to be careful, so I don’t get stopped by a policeman,” she said. “I try not to put my scared face on while driving.”
An environmental science major at Dominguez Hills, Ixta said she first learned of the Dream Act’s passage by smartphone when shopping at a hardware store with her parents.
“I literally got goose bumps on my arms,” she said.