The newly emboldened Democratic-led New York State Legislature waded into the battle over immigrants’ rights on Wednesday, approving a bill that for the first time offers undocumented students access to state financial aid and scholarships for higher education.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has confirmed he will sign the measure into law.
The Dream Act is the latest in a wave of state-level protections for immigrants as blue state legislatures increasingly seek to act as a counterbalance to President Trump’s federal immigration policies. These issues are also expected to play a prominent role in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary, with candidates who are courting liberal activists supporting the state measures.
After New York Democrats won control of the State Senate in November for the first time in a decade, protections for immigrants became a legislative priority. They included permitting undocumented residents to obtain state driver’s licenses and reducing maximum jail sentences for certain misdemeanors that could otherwise lead to deportation.
“It took us almost a decade to get the Dream Act, and it’s going to take another five, 10, 20 years to undo the damage that Washington is causing our families,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz of Queens, who was born in Colombia and came to New York as an undocumented child.
Even as the bill gained passage, the New York Immigration Coalition and other advocates were pushing for lawmakers to “dream bigger” and address issues like expanded funding for immigrant legal services and health care for immigrants.
All these measures, lawmakers say, could act as a bulwark against Republican efforts in Washington and the ongoing standoff over the nation’s southern border.
“The election of Trump and the fact that he made immigration a central theme of his presidency has made immigration a more prominent issue at the state level,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law. “In some ways, blue states are now competing with each other to provide a higher level of protection to immigrants.”
The New York bill will affect an estimated 146,000 young people who were educated in New York public schools but have been ineligible to receive financial aid under federal and state law, according to analysis by the New York State Youth Leadership Council and N.Y.U. Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.
“These young undocumented immigrants will work, they will pay taxes, they will buy products, and the greater earning capacity they have the more taxes they will pay,” said Democratic State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda. “This is one piece of legislation where we must get beyond the anti-immigration fervor created by President Trump and see the benefits educating these young people has for our state.”
But many Republicans say that the measure diverts funds away from legal residents and comes at the expense of taxpayers.
“How am I supposed to tell families in my Senate district that adequate state aid to help afford college isn’t available for them, but it is available for others who are in this country illegally?” said Republican State Sen. James Seward.
The move on financial aid for undocumented immigrants comes during a week in which the Legislature and Governor Cuomo continued to make headway on a list of liberal measures that had long been blocked while Republicans controlled the State Senate for most of the last decade.
On Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act, to expand rights to abortion. New York’s abortion laws had not been updated since 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. The measure moves abortion regulations from the state penal code to the health code, recognizing abortion as a public health issue rather than a crime from which the state had carved out exclusions.
In passing the state Dream Act, New York joined California, Texas, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, which have already passed similar legislation offering undocumented students access to state-funded financial aid; a dozen states have ensured undocumented immigrant residents can obtain driver’s licenses; and a handful have provided pathways for immigrants to secure professional and occupational licenses.
Only three states have enacted provisions that proactively prohibit undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition rates, and two, Alabama and South Carolina, prohibit those students from even enrolling at a public postsecondary institution.
The Dream Act’s passage reflected the Democratic Party’s turn to the left on immigration, an issue party leaders once handled gingerly out of fear of angering some white voters.
But Mr. Trump’s incendiary language on race, the increasingly diverse nature of the Democratic voter base and the party’s success in multiethnic cities and suburbs have convinced many party leaders that they are both morally right and on safe political ground when they side with undocumented immigrants.
The party’s 2020 presidential hopefuls — including some who once held more hawkish views on immigration, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — are already moving to reassure liberal activists on the issue in an effort to protect themselves in the 2020 campaign.
It is a strikingly different scenario than during the 2008 Democratic primary, when White House hopefuls wrestled with whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses. Several candidates, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, were torn between pleasing their core voters and scaring off swing voters in a general election.
The center of gravity has now shifted so that few Democratic presidential candidates would hesitate to embrace such measures as providing the undocumented drivers licenses or in-state tuition benefits. The only question now is how best to counter Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, and the debate has moved toward whether agencies like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement should exist at all.
Democrats in the New York Legislature first introduced the Dream Act in 2013, but the legislation was narrowly defeated in the Senate. Since that time, Democrats have included it in New York state budget proposals, only to have it repeatedly negotiated out of the budget.
“There is a backlog of progressive legislation that the new Democratic majority can finally prioritize,” said Democratic State Senator Jessica Ramos. “We might not have jurisdiction over immigration laws themselves, but there is still a lot we can do as a state to protect our diversity.”
Though the state already allows all students who graduate from high school in New York to pay in-state tuition at the City University of New York and the State University of New York, the Dream Act extends state financial aid to all students who meet the Tuition Assistance Program requirements, opens 529 tuition savings accounts to all New York youth and establishes a commission to raise private funds for college scholarships to be offered to the children of immigrants.
Still, the Republican minority that opposed the Dream Act argues that it creates a greater tax burden on already stressed middle-class taxpayers and puts the needs of undocumented immigrants above those of American-citizen students.
“Middle-class families across New York continue to struggle with high tuition costs and oppressive taxes,” said Republican Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh. “As state representatives, it is our duty to ensure that our state government operates in the best interests of New York’s families” and not undocumented immigrants, she said.
Until now, many young undocumented students could not afford to attend universities, despite aspiring to higher-education degrees; the Immigration Policy Center estimates that because of financial constrains, only 5 to 10 percent of the 4,500 undocumented students who graduate from New York high schools each year go on to pursue college degrees.
“When I came here I found out how hard it would be to go to college as someone who is undocumented,” said Richard Salinas, an 18-year-old high school student in Queens who came to the United States four years ago. “I wouldn’t be able to get any help, and my mom can’t afford it and my dad can’t afford it.”
“This changes everything for me,” Mr. Salinas said.
* Richard Salinas is a Make the Road New York member.