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Long Island

Albany inaction on tuition aid dismays young immigrants

Long Island labor and immigration advocates rally in

Long Island labor and immigration advocates rally in front of Senator Dean Skelos' office in Rockville Centre Tuesday March 24, 2015 to protest the dropping of the Dream Act proposal from this year's budget negotiations. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Young immigrants hoping to receive state-funded financial aid for college despite their lack of legal status voiced disappointment Tuesday after learning the proposal had been shelved in state budget negotiations.

About 20 people held an afternoon protest outside the district office of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who opposes approval of the tuition assistance. A smaller group gathered Tuesday morning in Hauppauge to express discontent with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, though the Democrat has said he backs the aid.

"This is very disheartening," said Victoria Daza, an organizer with Long Island Jobs with Justice, a labor advocacy group. If the proposal fails this session, Daza said, "that would be four years of young people graduating high school without having alternatives" since the measure first was proposed.

The group in Rockville Centre chanted "for justice and education" outside Skelos' office, where they set up a coffin to signify "the dreams and accomplishments of the youth on Long Island. . . whose dreams are being wasted," said Walter Barrientos, an organizer with the Latino advocacy group Make the Road New York.

Two Rockville Centre police officers kept them from going as a group into the office. They took turns going inside in pairs to advocate for the measure, but the office closed before all of them could do so.

The New York Dream Act was introduced as a bill in 2011 after several years of attempts at the federal level to grant full legal status and associated benefits to most young immigrants known as "Dreamers," who were brought into the United States illegally as minors. The state bill seeks to give those immigrants access to taxpayer-funded aid through the Tuition Assistance Program so that they can pursue education after high school.

Last year, the proposal passed the Assembly but fell short of Senate approval by two votes. Cuomo this year paired it with a tax-credit program for private schools, saying in his State of the State address that "all students deserve a fair shot at the American dream." Cuomo spokesman Frank Sobrino said Tuesday that the budget is "still being negotiated."

Skelos, through spokesman Scott Reif, said he "does not believe taxpayers should cover the cost of free college tuition for illegal immigrants while hardworking middle-class families, here legally, take out student loans that would take them years to repay."

Barrett Psareas, a proponent ofimmigration enforcement who is vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association, agreed with that assessment. "It's a travesty that we now talk about paying for their higher education when it can't happen for my children," Psareas said.

Laura Lemus, an immigrant activist with Long Island Wins, and a Dreamer herself, said the fight for the act goes beyond politics.

"This is not just about a policy and a bill. I mean this is really our students -- high school and college students -- just waiting to hear whether they are going to be able to go to school next semester," she said. "This is about the generation of students that are next to grab their diploma."

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