Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a Republican who lost his bid to remain in office, today defended undocumented college students, arguing that their parents are working and paying taxes and that Congress should approve a path for them to seek legal status.
"Congress needs to get off its rear and do it now," Maldonado said of long simmering immigration reform proposals that include the possibility of legalization for workers as well as stricter workplace enforcement rules.
Joining in a conference call with an undocumented student from Fresno State University - student body president Pedro Ramirez (right) - Maldonado also said that "we must hold both parties' feet to the fire" to get politicians to act.
Maldonado, one of the few high-profile GOP Latino politicians in California, said he was prompted to speak out because he's heard a lot of "platitudes and rhetoric" about immigration and a state law that he co-authored in 2001.
He was co-author of Assembly Bill 540, which allows students who are admitted to state universities based on their academic performance to pay in-state tuition if they had attended a state high school for at least three years.
AB 540 students who are undocumented are barred from federal or state financial aid. Some legislators are trying to get a law approved to let such students apply for private money managed by universities, an effort Maldonado said he supports.
"I get the impression that a lot of people think this is a free education," Maldonado said of the benefits of AB 540. "It's not a free education. Students still have to pay."
He said he had heard many comments from people attacking AB 540 after the California Supreme Court upheld the law this month. The law was challenged by out-of-state students who said it violated their rights because they had to pay higher tuition rates while undocumented students did not.
Maldonado said California and other states wouldn't need "piecemeal" legislation such as AB 540 if Congress would pass federal laws.
In the meantime, Maldonado said, it makes sense to allow qualified students who were brought here as children "through no fault of their own" continue on to college and try to become higher paid workers and taxpayers.
"As Californians," he said, "we're going to get our money back."
Maldonado's views contrast with those of many Republican activists, including defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. She said she would have tried to bar undocumented students from college and opposed legalization.
Ramirez, 22, said he has been in California since he was three years old and found out he was undocumented before starting his senior year of high school.
"I pay for all of my education, every single last cent of it," the high school valedictorian said. Ramirez said he has received some private scholarship money from outside the university, and has earned money by mowing lawns, working in restaurants and doing clerical work.
"My parents are actually taxpayers, too," Ramirez said. He said they pay taxes using a tax identification number.
Ramirez said that instead of taking money away from other student, the tuition he pays goes into a fund that subsidizes other students' fees. "I'm paying for another student to go here, which I don't mind," Ramirez said.
He said the only way out of his predicament - and to obtain legal status - would be if Congress approves the DREAM Act, a proposal to allow young illegal immigrants who have grown up here to earn residency by going to college or serving in the military.
"I understand the need for border security," Ramirez said, and better employee ID verification. But he said he hopes the public "looks at the facts" and "the human story."
Maldonado said: "Pedro has been here for a long, long time, and wouldn't have gone on to college without AB 540. "Who knows what would have happened?"
California's university systems report data showing that the numbers of AB 540 are comparatively small, about one percent or less of the student population.
California State University documents estimate that about 20,000 to 40,000 undocumented students graduate each year from California high schools, out of about 65,000 nationwide.
Overall, Maldonado said, since the passage of AB 540 in 2001 more than 5,000 undocumented students have benefited.
Photo: Pedro Ramirez poses with Meg Whitman at the Oct. 2 gubernatorial debate in Fresno. Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee