Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What is the California Dream Act?

Photo by un.sospiro/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Photo by un.sospiro/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Although its name connotes proposed federal legislation that fell by the wayside late last year, the California bill approved today 51-21 in the state Assembly does not have anything to do with granting legal status to undocumented college students. It does, however, make it easier for them to pay for college.

The bill is AB 130, one of two related bills sponsored by Democratic Assembly member Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles. It allows for undocumented students who already meet the residency criteria for California in-state tuition to obtain scholarships that are not derived from state funds. From a synopsis of the bill:

Existing law requires that a person, other than a nonimmigrant alien, as defined, who has attended high school in California for 3 or more years, who has graduated from a California high school or attained the equivalent thereof, who has registered at or attends an accredited institution of higher education in California not earlier than the fall semester or quarter of the 2001-02 academic year, and who, if he or she is an alien without lawful immigration status, has filed a prescribed affidavit, is exempt from paying nonresident tuition at the California Community Colleges and the California State University.

This bill would enact the California Dream Act of 2011.

This bill would provide that, on and after January 1, 2012, a student attending the California State University, the California Community Colleges, or the University of California who is exempt from paying nonresident tuition under the provision described above would be eligible to receive a scholarship derived from nonstate funds received, for the purpose of scholarships, by the segment at which he or she is a student.

While they can pay lower in-state tuition - not the case for many undocumented students in other states - the amount of financial assistance available to these students is minimal, as they are prohibited from receiving public financial aid. There are a small number of private scholarships they can obtain, but competition is stiff. Many wind up working their way through school.

Nancy Meza, a 2010 graduate of UCLA who is an advocate for this bill as well as the federal Dream Act, shared her story via e-mail:

Although I am a recent graduate of UCLA with my B.A. in Chicana/o studies, financing my education and reaching my goal of graduating college as an undocumented student was extremely difficult. Currently undocumented students are able to pay in state tuition through AB540 , yet we are barred from accessing financial help from both the state and state institutions, this means that we have to pay our own way through college.

While I was at UCLA , 33% of the tuition I paid for out of pocket when into an " institutional aid pool" in forms of university grants, departmental scholarships and other funded research opportunities. Although I paid into that pool of funds, I was barred from applying to institutional aid opportunities.

Cedillo, who introduced similar legislation in the past that that was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has also introduced a companion bill, AB 131. That bill would allow undocumented students to qualify for institutional financial aid, Cal Grants state financial aid grants and other assistance at the community college level.

Opponents of the California Dream Act complain that the cash-strapped state can't afford the legislation. State funding cuts have pushed the University of California system to ramp up its recruiting of out-of-state students, who bring in more money because they pay higher fees.