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SJP and UC Divest Coalition Demonstrations at UCLAUCLA chancellor appointment

Gov. Jerry Brown signs AB 131, passing California DREAM Act

By Andra Lim

Oct. 10, 2011 1:34 a.m.

Mariana Vega spends much of her time waiting.

She’s waiting to return to UCLA after dropping out because she could no longer afford tuition. She’s waiting to hear back from scholarship foundations. And she’s been waiting to become a U.S. citizen since applying in 2001.

So on Saturday morning, Vega was happy to hear that Gov. Jerry Brown had ended a five-year feud over the California DREAM Act by signing AB 131.

The bill makes hundreds of undocumented students eligible for state-funded financial aid, such as Cal Grants. California is the first state to pass legislation that opens up public aid for undocumented students.

“If I were getting financial aid, I would be at UCLA right now,” said Vega, an undocumented student who is currently attending a community college to save money. “(AB 131) will make it more likely that I will not have to take a quarter off.”

Opponents of AB 131 argue that its cost ““ an estimated $15 million to $40 million annually ““ will drain a dwindling state budget that has prompted cuts to higher education and other public services.

“The extension of state money to illegal aliens is the misuse of California taxpayer funds,” said Kristen Williamson, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “When the state is cutting services to legal residents, it’s unfair and reckless to be extending benefits to illegal aliens.”

But these benefits are a small piece of the pie ““ under AB 131, students will receive less than 1 percent of the Cal Grant budget, said Luis Quinonez, a legislative aid for the office of Assemblymember Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

AB 130, the DREAM Act’s less controversial half, passed in July. The bill allows undocumented students to receive privately funded aid from schools.

To qualify for aid under the DREAM Act, students must meet the requirements of AB 540, which allows nonresidents to pay in-state tuition. Students must attend a California high school for three years and graduate and affirm that they are in the process of applying for legal residency.

Though some of these students are undocumented, most beneficiaries of the DREAM Act are citizens who attended a California high school but have lived elsewhere in the U.S.

Of the 2,240 AB 540 students in the University of California, about 30 percent are undocumented, Quinonez said.

Though Claudia Lara, a fourth-year Chicana and Chicano studies student, will have graduated by the time AB 131 goes into effect, it still provides opportunities for her.

Graduate school used to seem out of reach ““ she’s exhausted her finances paying for her undergraduate studies, working 30 hours a week and even taking a year off when money was drying up.

But with AB 131, Lara may be able to receive financial aid for graduate school. Already, she’s started to frame her future around the hope of attending UCLA’s education program.

Linett Luna, a fourth-year anthropology and Latin American studies student, said that AB 131 may help her finish her degree faster. She’s been coming to school every other quarter and working in between.

“It takes a toll on you emotionally, psychologically, because when you’re not in school … it’s hard to see everyone else going on with their lives and their classes,” Luna said.

Since the recession, her father has only been able to work once or twice a week, and mortgage payments are piling up. Luna said she takes whatever jobs she can find to support herself, from tutoring to helping a professor with research.

Sometimes, she gives her paycheck to her family to cover a bill that’s overdue.

Though the California DREAM Act could help Luna pay for school, the support system cuts off abruptly after graduation. Without citizenship, Luna said she will not be able to get the jobs she’s been working toward ““ helping at a nonprofit organization or teaching at a community college.

The federal DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students who graduate from college or serve in the military. The bill is currently in the U.S. Senate after failing to pass last December.

The passage of AB 131 would make the federal DREAM Act a more salient issue on Capitol Hill, especially as the 2012 presidential election approaches, said Raúl Hinojosa, an associate professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.

“California has the biggest economy, it’s the biggest state, it’s the biggest prize in the electoral college,” Hinojosa said. “This sends a major signal electorally when (candidates) are basically competing for the Latino vote.”

But Williamson said that in political calculus, reaching out to undocumented students could turn off voters.

“California is off on its own island as far as extending benefits to illegal aliens,” Williamson said. “It’s very counter-intuitive to extend them benefits. If you’re a politician running for office, your voters are legal residents.”

Though there are 13 states that have passed laws that allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, like California’s AB 540, that legislation has been met with considerable backlash, Williamson said. She added that, in Maryland, there is an effort to overturn such a bill.

“Especially during hard economic times, middle-class and low-income families are having a hard time just sending their kids to state schools,” Williamson said.

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