Dozens of immigrant teens took a lobbying trip from New York to Albany on Tuesday, hoping to convince lawmakers to make it easier for undocumented students to afford college.
Students from three Queens high schools — Flushing, LaGuardia International and Pan American International — joined teens from Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn to encourage legislators to approve the New York State DREAM Act.
The students’ strategy was to tell their individual stories in an attempt to personalize the issue for the elected officials. The bill would open up the state’s Tuition Assistance Program to all students, regardless of immigration status.
As the students’ bus pulled into Albany, Jose Lopez, an organizer at advocacy nonprofit Make the Road New York, which planned the trip, coached those on board: “Do not be afraid to tell your stories,” he said, “there are lots of stories on this bus.”
He was not wrong.
Flushing High School senior Kassandra Guzman, 18, came to Corona from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant when she was six. She said she was both nervous and excited to be lobbying elected officials.
“I think no one is so inhuman to not support a cause when there’s a story behind it,” she said.
She told staffers in the office of Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Jamaica) that she wants to study criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, but is worried about how she will be able to afford tuition.
“I want to get the education I need to get a job to help my parents and my brother who is autistic,” said Guzman, who has applied for a work permit under a new Obama administration program but can’t receive state aid without a green card.
Currently, undocumented students get in-state tuition but are banned from getting state aid. The bill, projected to cost the state $20 million, would change this.
“These kids may not be citizens now, but in the near future they will be. This is the first step,” said Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights).
A similar proposal languished in the state Senate without getting to a vote last year.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver backs the latest version of the act, which sailed through the Assembly’s Higher Education committee Tuesday morning with bipartisan support, though only two Republican lawmakers on the committee voted for it. It now goes to the Assembly’s Ways and Means committee before it can go to the floor for a vote of the full body.
“The DREAM Act is not pitting those who were born here against those who were not,” Silver said. “It’s about equal access to education for all of our children.”
But a major fight looms in the Senate, where the GOP is prepared to fight the measure.
Opponents, including Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, say taxpayers should not be funding tuition assistance to those who are in the country illegally. Skelos and other Republican lawmakers support one part of the bill, which would set up a private “Dream Fund” for these students.
Silver said the two initiatives will not be split into different bills.
Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), who has proposed a bill of his own, recently said he wants his chamber to pass both initiatives but would consider the fund as a good first step.
Klein intends to cover the costs of the DREAM Act by imposing a new casino fee should the state legalize casino gambling this year.
Silver said he doesn’t want to “gamble” with the DREAM Act program. He said he would rather use money from the regular budget and not have the program tied to the legislative push to legalize casino gambling.
State lawmakers are trying to pass a bill because the federal DREAM Act, which would give a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who go to college or the military, has stalled.
President Obama and a group of U.S. Senators who are crafting a reform bill say it will include giving these young people a faster way to become citizens.