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State Legislature approves Dream Act for immigrants

Exterior view of the New York State Capitol

Exterior view of the New York State Capitol building in Albany, pictured Dec. 18. Credit: Hans Pennink

ALBANY – The State Legislature passed a bill Wednesday to provide college financial aid to immigrants whose parents entered the United States illegally, a decade-old effort that is supported by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The Sen. Jose Peralta Dream Act would cost the state $27 million in a $175.2 billion state budget to provide aid based on financial need for 6,000 to 8,000 students each year.

“Today, I am proud to be an American,” said Sen. Luis Sepúlveda (D-Bronx), the bill’s prime sponsor. “This country … has ultimately stood for opportunity [but] for too long bright, young immigrants have been locked out of educational opportunity … calling them illegal is inherently unfair, inherently inhumane, and inherently un-American.”

The Democratic-led Senate passed the measure 40-20, and the Democratic-led Assembly passed it 90-37. The bill now goes to Cuomo, who has proposed a slightly different version of the Dream Act.

Some emotion was exposed in the Senate debate that drew rebukes from the podium.

Sen. Daphne Jordan (R-Halfmoon) called the bill “a $27 million giveaway to illegal immigrants.”

“My grandparents are rolling over in their graves today,” she said in the floor debate. “The Dream Act is a nightmare and a slap in the face to all families who are struggling to pay for college education.”

“I have constituents who struggle to put their children through school [who now] have the added burden to know that their dollars are going to pay for illegal immigrants,” said Sen. Robert Ortt (R-Buffalo). “When we can take care of every American citizen who is here legally and plays by the rules … then we can talk about those who have not.”

“Using the word ‘illegals’ is unacceptable,” said Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown), whose win in November helped his party take the Senate majority. “This is not free handouts to children."

The Dream Act is the latest attempt to help immigrants who entered the country illegally as children to prosper in New York. It would also extend financial aid to recent immigrants on temporary work visas with no commitment to remain in New York, a provision that rankled some Republicans. Since 2002, students without proper immigrant documentation have qualified for lower, in-state tuition at public colleges as long as they graduated from a New York State high school or obtained their graduate equivalency diploma through a test. But thousands of immigrants were stuck there because, despite qualifying for aid based on their financial need, they couldn’t receive any state aid.

Under the Dream Act, these students will qualify for the Excelsior Scholarships — which could pay all public college tuition for income-qualified families — the Tuition Assistance Program that provides aid to hundreds of thousands of students, and other scholarships and grants.

Advocates say dreamers already provide $115 million in state and local tax revenue, which they say would increase with greater access to higher education.

“We all came here to this country … Looking for opportunity, looking for that American dream,” said Assemb. Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan), a native of the Dominican Republic.

Senate Republicans who had blocked the bill in past years have argued that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to fund financial aid for people who are in the country illegally. The Republicans said the funding is needed more by schools and colleges as well as by citizens struggling to pay for college.

The bill was named for the late Sen. Jose Peralta, the first Dominican-American elected to the State Senate and who sponsored the Dream Act for years. The senator popular on both sides of the aisle died in November.

State & Region