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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Immigration
Type: Media Coverage

State Senate Rejects Bill Granting Tuition Aid to Illegal Immigrants

In a surprise vote, the New York State Senate on Monday rejected legislation that would have granted state tuition aid to undocumented immigrants, dealing a blow to immigrants’ advocates who had made it their top priority in the capital.

The Senate, controlled by Republicans and a small group of Democrats, failed to pass the measure despite a vote of 30 in favor and 29 opposed. It required 32 votes in favor to pass.

Immigrants’ advocates have been leaning on the Senate for months. But Republicans had shown no interest in considering the legislation, and the decision to hold a vote on Monday came abruptly, with almost no notice.

Even advocates were surprised: Latino activists who had planned to visit the Capitol on Tuesday to lobby for the measure said they would now use the trip to express their frustration.

All of the Republicans present voted against the measure; two Democrats, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn and Ted O’Brien of the Rochester area, also voted no.

“So many legal families are struggling with the high cost of college education right now,” said Senator Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican from Buffalo.

The vote on Monday came after a tense debate that stretched for more than an hour and was filled with emotional pleas for support from many Latino and black senators. “This is an opportunity — an opportunity to do the right thing,” said Senator José R. Peralta, Democrat of Queens.

The legislation would have allowed undocumented students who met certain conditions to receive financial aid through state programs, like the Tuition Assistance Program. It would also have created a private scholarship fund for the children of immigrants, and allowed undocumented students and their families to open college savings accounts.

The Democratic-controlled State Assembly passed the measure last month. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, had not been a vocal advocate for its passage, which irritated a number of Hispanic lawmakers, but he had been expected to sign it if the Senate passed it. But it had been unclear for months if the bill had the necessary Senate support.

The measure, known as the Dream Act, got its name from federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for young immigrants who entered the country illegally. The New York measure would not offer an opportunity to gain legal status.

More than a dozen states offer in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. New York has done so for more than a decade, and an estimated 8,300 undocumented immigrants were attending public institutions of higher education in the state in the fall of 2013.

But only four states — California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington —offer state financial aid to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The decision to hold a vote in the Senate was orchestrated by Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a five-member group that shares power with the Senate Republicans.

It was a rare instance of Senate-floor drama. It is highly unusual to hold a vote on legislation in Albany when passage is not guaranteed. Last year, not a single piece of legislation was defeated in a floor vote in the Senate, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But Mr. Klein had been criticized for partnering with Senate Republicans, who have blocked a number of measures sought by liberal lawmakers. Democrats suspected he wanted to put the measure to a vote to avoid accusations from the left that he was complicit in bottling it up.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Mr. Klein recalled his own family history of immigration to the United States, as well as the nation’s tradition of welcoming people from foreign lands.

“You’re either standing up for these students to get their shot, or standing in the way,” he said.

But Javier H. Valdés, the co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a Latino advocacy group, questioned why Mr. Klein had pushed for the vote when one Republican senator who was seen as a possible supporter, Phil Boyle of Long Island, was absent.

“Our sense was that we were set up to lose, and that’s very concerning,” Mr. Valdés said. “Why would they call a vote so quickly that’s been debated for so long?”

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