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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.

 In the wake of the bruising defeat of the DREAM Act a year go, undocumented immigrant youth determined to keep up the momentum of their movement pivoted to demand pro-immigrant legislation at the state level this year. In several states those demands, usually for tuition equity for undocumented students hoping to go to college, turned into wins. But as the year winds down, two separate fights for tuition equity are under way on two separate coasts, hinting at the long struggle ahead.

In New York, immigrant rights activists are organizing themselves to file a package of bills in the coming weeks to extend tuition assistance to undocumented students who go to state colleges and universities. Meanwhile in California, immigrant rights activists have been waging a quiet battle to preserve the recently signed AB 131—a law which does the same thing New York is attempting to do now—from a referendum to put a repeal of the law on the ballot next year.

In New York activists are solidifying their legislative plans for 2012 now. Among the policy options immigrant rights activists are backing, says Jackie Vimo, advocacy director for the New York Immigration Coalition, are calls to grant undocumented immigrant students eligibility for New York’s Tuition Assistance Program, which Vimo says is the largest state-funded tuition assistance program in the country.

Advocates are also calling for a component that would allow undocumented immigrant parents to contribute money to a college savings account for their kids, as well as another which would allow undocumented immigrant students to apply for all public and private scholarships through the state’s CUNY and SUNY network. These provisions are a crucial part for ensuring educational equity for undocumented immigrants, since undocumented immigrants are ineligible for any federal financial aid and grants.

“We’re really in a great starting place in terms of the broad base of support from allies here in New York,” Vimo said. “Of course the economic climate doesn’t make it easy but … we hope that this is a climate for progressive change.”

The New York State Board of Regents recently voted to support opening up TAP to undocumented students, and the measure also has the backing of other high-ranking state education officials, as well as interfaith coalitions and business groups.

On the other side of the country, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a tea party-backed Republican from Twin Peaks, California, announced a campaign to repeal the California DREAM Act immediately after Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in October, but had made his criticisms of the bill well-known long before. The California DREAM Act included AB 130, which allowed undocumented students to apply for a privately funded pot of money, but it was AB 131, which would allow undocumented students to apply for publicly funded financial aid like Cal Grants and other state funds to pay for school, which was the more hard fought battle. It’s AB 131 which Donnelly wants to repeal.

“I would urge you to listen to the tens of millions of Californians, who believe that in these times, our limited resources should be reserved for citizens and legal residents,” Donnelly wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown before he signed AB 131 into law in October. Donnelly argues that in the current economic crisis, the state can’t afford to extend benefits to undocumented immigrants who would have no right to legally work in the country after they complete college anyway.

Using the current economic climate as an excuse to hold off on granting tuition equity to students is a disingenuous move, say backers of the law.