The Assembly passed legislation Thursday to allow illegal immigrants to receive college scholarships, setting the stage for new fighting over an explosive social issue whose prospects were buoyed last year by the election of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Assembly approved the first of two "Dream Act" bills, Assembly Bill 130, which would allow a small segment of undocumented immigrants who currently qualify for in-state tuition to apply for scholarships from private donations. Majority Democrats passed the bill on a 51-21 party-line vote.
Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, proposed both AB 130 and a pending companion measure -- Assembly Bill 131 -- that would open the financial aid door even wider by allowing those illegal immigrants to qualify for Cal Grants and other publicly funded aid.
"We cannot afford, our economy cannot afford, to deny educational opportunities to anyone who has the strength of character, the personal discipline, the intelligence, to make it" through California's college or university system," Cedillo said in a statement.
Cedillo's bills would apply to students who have attended a California high school for three years or more, graduated from a high school or attained an equivalent degree -- and, if they are illegal immigrants, commit to legalizing their status if given the chance.
The group targeted by AB 130 represent only a tiny fraction of college enrollment -- 1,941 at the University of California, 3,633 at California State University and 38,202 at community colleges. Of those totals, illegal immigrants comprise about 32 percent of UC's figure and an unknown but perhaps higher percentage of those from state and community colleges, according to a legislative analysis of AB 130.
For six years, Cedillo has pushed unsuccessfully to allow college financial aid for illegal immigrants, saying they make up a significant portion of the state's workforce. Denying them scholarships tends to relegate even the best and brightest to a lifetime of economic hardship, he says.
Opponents counter that California's legal residents are hard-pressed to finance a college education, particularly in rocky economic times, and that taxpayers have little or no obligation to help families that entered the state illegally.
AB 130's companion bill, AB 131, targeting publicly funded scholarships, is pending before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.