ALBANY — In an emotional session, the state Legislature passed a bill on Wednesday to give undocumented immigrants access to the same in-state college scholarships and financial aid available to U.S. citizens.
It was the first pro-immigration bill to pass the Senate under its new Democratic majority. And, in a poignant note, the bill was named in honor of the late Sen. Jose Peralta, who died suddenly last year.
Although the Assembly has passed the bill for nine consecutive years, it had been consistently rejected by Senate Republicans, who said it would pull money away from the middle class.
Some Democrats in both chambers spent the day recounting their own experiences as immigrants, as well as those of their colleagues and neighbors, and heralding the bill as a declaration of New York values.
“While we as New York state legislators do not have the power to grant citizenship, today we will ensure that for these fellow New Yorkers — who have grown up with us and gone to school with us and live with us — that they will continue to have the same opportunities that we have,” said the bill’s Assembly sponsor Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan) in a press conference preceding the vote.
The Capitol was crowded past dusk with students wearing knit “Dream Act Now” scarves. The drama was particularly palpable in the Senate, where even historically sober-minded members said the DREAM Act is an issue of fairness and pushed back against some opponents who referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.”
“This is New York state, people,” Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-Queens) said in a rousing oration that silenced the Senate chamber. “We should not be trying to act like [President Donald Trump] separating our citizens, trying to create two classes of people, when people are trying to get educated, when people are trying to do better for themselves. They’ve come through the system, they’ve qualified, and then they’ve found out at the last minute they cannot go to college.”
The outnumbered Republicans in both chambers said the Legislature should instead be providing more resources to citizens who are struggling under massive student debt.
“Only here in Albany would I have to explain my vote, because in my district there would be no need to explain my opposition to this bill,” said Sen. Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda). “There’s no question this would increase costs for New Yorkers. It’s either going to increase taxes or you’re going to have increased tuition rates at our state schools … And as long as I have constituents who struggle to send their children to school, who take out mounds of student loan debt, either the parents or the students, and who now have the added bonus to know that they not only have to struggle to pay back their loans or pay that tuition, but they also know that their dollars are going to pay for illegal immigrants.”
The last time the DREAM Act made it to the Senate floor in 2014, it failed dramatically in a rare uncontrolled vote.
The bill’s passage was particularly meaningful for many on the Senate chamber because of its connection to Peralta, who carried the legislation last year. Peralta’s wife, Evelyn, his two sons and mother were in attendance during both chambers’ debates and were presented with hugs, photos and standing ovations. Evelyn Peralta called the legislation a “labor of love” for her husband and said she could think of no greater honor to his legacy.
“To every young immigrant hearing my words, we love you, we see you and we welcome you to our American family,” she said.
New York’s DREAM Act is not to be confused with the federal DREAM Act, which, among other things, opens a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Under New York’s DREAM Act, Dreamers would be eligible for general awards, performance-based awards or the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) funds if they meet certain criteria.
It would allow such individuals to open a New York State 529 family tuition account under the New York State College Tuition Savings Program and be a designated beneficiary on an account if they have a taxpayer identification number.
The bill’s sponsors argue the DREAM Act transcends moral stances on immigrant status. Dreamers are already educated in the state’s school system, so denying them higher education opportunities once they complete high school is the equivalent of pulling the rug out from under future earners and taxpayers, said Assembly Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan).
Dreamers contribute $115 million to local and state taxes annually, according to the Senate sponsor, Luis Sepúlveda (D-Bronx), and the DREAM Act is estimated to cost $27 million.
“If I tell anyone to give me $27 million and I’ll give you back $115 million, people say that’s a good idea,” Sepúlveda said.
The bill creates a commission, whose members will be appointed by the governor’s office and the Legislature, to raise money for a fund in order to offer scholarships “to college bound children who are the children of immigrants,” according to the bill’s text.
The commission would be tasked with coming up with the criteria for the scholarships, creating and publicizing a training program for education professionals and coming up with a public awareness campaign for the DREAM funds. The sponsor’s memo says, “Neither the commission nor the fund would receive state funding or aid.”
The DREAM Act, with its relatively low price tag and emphasis on education, is generally considered an easier sell than other immigration issues, such as granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, which advocates say is the next hurdle.
“I think people know where the Assembly’s heart is particularly when it comes to immigrant communities,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said regarding driver’s licenses Wednesday, but noted that bill has not yet been conferenced within the Assembly or negotiated with the Senate, where it could face opposition from more moderate Democrats.
Advocates have been fighting for the DREAM Act for years, said Natalia Aristizabal, co-director of organizing at Make the Road New York, an immigration advocacy group.
Aristizabal said that the group’s next step is working with the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation to create a student-friendly application and to educate communities on how to apply.
Karen Garcia, 18, a Dreamer and member of Make the Road New York who attends Suffolk Community College, told POLITICO that she has had to pay for school by working on the side as she is not a citizen or permanent resident. Garcia will be majoring in biology and is interested in becoming a physician assistant.
“A big part of it is I feel relief because this act will lessen the financial burden on me and even the feelings of doubt and worry because of the limitations that my status gives,” Garcia said.
Bill Mahoney contributed to this report.