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New York, California Fight for Tuition Equity for Undocumented Students

In the wake of the bruising defeat of the DREAM Act a year go, undocumented immigrant youth are fighting on the state level for access to education.

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“For people who are trying to repeal AB 131 like Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, there is no right time for this,” said Dan Savage, the chief of staff for Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who authored AB 131. “Although Mr. Donnelly is arguing that we can’t afford this, make no mistake, if we had a $20 million surplus in the bank he’d still be saying the same thing.”

Savage says that AB 131 in fact makes plain economic sense for the state, which is required to provide a K through 12 education for California students, regardless of their immigration status.

“We get them to the point of 12th grade and then we say, well, you’re on your own?”

“One of the arguments is that undocumented students take away spots from other Americans,” said Carlos Amador, who works with Dream Team Los Angeles, an undocumented immigrant youth organizing group.

“But we see undocumented students as part of the fabric, as part of the nation and the state, so we don’t see ourselves as different at all from other students. We grew up here, we went to school here, and we were raised with the rest of the population in California.”

New York and California are not alone. This year Maryland and Rhode Island extended in-state tuition to state residents who’d completed high school in the state, regardless of their immigration status. Still, the tuition equity victories at the state level this year are tempered by the extreme bigotry that’s been codified with Alabama’s HB 56, and other anti-immigrant laws inspired by Arizona’s SB 1070. Indeed, the same year that Alabama and a handful of other states saw fit to pass anti-immigrant laws that all but legalized racial profiling, an unprecedented number of states extended rights to undocumented immigrants.

The flurry of state immigration laws, on the left and right, were spurred in large part by the bleak congressional outlook for any movement on immigration.

“After last year’s DREAM Act vote, we kind of had seen the writing on the wall,” said Adey Fisseha, a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “You saw people say, ‘Okay, if the DREAM Act isn’t going to pass, then what can we do?”

The year has also been full of state efforts to push back against the Obama administration’s deportation agenda and enforcement programs like Secure Communities, but, Fisseha says, folks are still trying to figure out what a progressive pro-immigrant legislative agenda looks like without the hope of comprehensive reform at the federal level in the next year.

“In-state tuition still remains one of the bright points where people have been able to coalesce, in passing pro-immigrant bills.”

And in the absence of any kind of comprehensive reform, the bills that are passed now can build the framework for what kinds of policy changes we’ll see at the federal level eventually, said Tania Mattos, an activist and undocumented immigrant who works with the New York State Youth Leadership Council.

“It’s very important for New York, California, Illinois, all these states that have taken a stand, to say that there are actually states in this country that believe in and embrace immigrants,” Mattos said.

Until then, undocumented immigrant activists say they are ready for a long fight at the state level.

“It was long overdue to bring justice to this issue and bring us closer to equal access to higher education,” said Amador, the activist from Los Angeles, adding that people have been organizing for a version of AB 131 for a decades.