How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Now that half the California Dream Act is law, what's next?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Students' t-shirts at the AB 130 signing ceremony today at Los Angeles City College, July 25, 2011

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Students' t-shirts at the AB 130 signing ceremony today at Los Angeles City College, July 25, 2011


As students peered through bookshelves to catch a glimpse, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a piece of legislation known as AB 130 in the library of Los Angeles City College, a community college serving students on the working-class southern fringe of Hollywood.

The bill is one-half of a legislative package referred to as the California Dream Act, two bills sponsored by Democratic Assembly member Gil Cedillo that aim to make it easier for undocumented college students to pay for college. The mood was celebratory as Brown put pen to paper, granting these students access to scholarships based on private, non-state funding previously unavailable to them.

But afterward, the students in the library made no bones about being disappointed that AB 130's companion bill, AB 131, has yet to make it to the Senate floor for a vote. That bill would enable them to access public state-funded financial aid, including Cal Grants, as U.S. citizen and legal resident students do now.

"It's good that AB 130 passed," said Shirley Santos, 19, a sophomore at Fullerton City College studying to become a biochemist. "But it's not complete."

Santos, who arrived in the United States at age five with her family and remains undocumented, wore a white t-shirt depicting a half-full glass with a question mark, as did several of her friends.

It's a milestone just that AB 130 has come as far as it has, with similar legislation sponsored by Cedillo having been vetoed three times by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the easiest to pass of the two bills. The prospects for AB 131, which would involve the use of state funding, remain unclear. Opponents have raised questions about how the state would pay for the student aid while it struggles through a financial crisis.

The estimated annual cost of AB 131 ranges between $32 million and $35 million, according to Cedillo and his staff, but some of that money is already budgeted as Cal Grants funding for qualifying students who can't currently access it. According to Luis Dario Quiñones, a legislative aide for Cedillo, about $13 million dollars would come from money set aside each year for low-income students whose grades qualify them for Cal Grants. The difference would come from other sources.

An estimated 24,000 undocumented students graduate each year from California's public high schools, Quiñones said.

The bill's Republican opposition in the legislature includes Assembly member Jim Silva of Orange County, who wrote last week in the Orange County Register that the two bills would "spend additional dollars on illegal immigrant students that would otherwise be spent on legal students."

Assembly member Mike Eng, who co-authored both bills with Cedillo, said an argument can be made that these students are not getting a free ride on account of their immigrant parents' contributions.

"This is a state of immigrant parents who have created wealth," Eng said. "I think they get it. And politically, you can justify that these parents pay into the tax system. Just as a matter of fairness, these are individuals whose parents have paid their dues."

Eng and Cedillo both said they were optimistic that AB 131 would eventually land on Brown's desk. Legislators have until late August to move the bill out of the Senate committee where it remains in suspense.

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