Bill would lower tuition for undocumented students
North County Times Staff Writer
Going to college is only a dream for thousands of undocumented immigrants who graduate from California high schools.
That's because even though they have lived here most of their lives, the graduates must pay nonresident tuition fees, which can more than triple the cost of a higher education.
That would change under Assembly Bill 1197, which would allow undocumented immigrants who are in the process of becoming legal residents to pay the much lower resident tuition fees to attend state community colleges and the University of California and California State University systems.
The measure also mandates that students show proof they have lived in California for at least three years and have been accepted by a state college or university within a year of graduation.
Gov. Gray Davis has not indicated whether he will sign the bill, which was opposed by a majority of North County legislators.
If the bill is not vetoed by the governor by the end of this month, the measure becomes law without his signature.
"It's a step in the right direction to help students who are committed to their education," Irma Cota, chief executive officer of North County Health Services in San Marcos, said of the bill.
Cota said many students in high school become discouraged because they believe they will be unable to attend college because of their immigration status.
The bill authored by Democratic Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh, whose East Los Angeles district is mostly Latino and includes many immigrants, is aimed at the children of families who have been left in limbo by a long immigration process.
Firebaugh said many of the students who would benefit under this measure are children of parents who have been granted amnesty by the federal government and are awaiting their own applications for citizenship to be accepted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"There are many families who have petitions pending and, as taxpayers, they should be able to reap the benefits of living in the state," said Olga Sanchez, principal consultant for Firebaugh. "This is their home."
Sanchez said the governor may not support the bill.
"The indication is that he does not favor this policy," she said. "We are encouraging everyone who supports this bill to share their support with the governor."
A student who qualifies as a California resident, usually someone who has lived in the state for more than one year, pays $1,506 in tuition in the CSU system, while nonresident students pay $9,253. In the UC system, a resident undergraduate student pays $3,609 while nonresidents pay $14,547.
The financial impact of the bill is not yet known.
Proponents say Latino students often fall through the cracks because they are not given the proper encouragement or information to continue their education. They say students often think the cost of a college education is beyond their reach.
"I've seen a lot of people who don't even apply for schools or scholarships," said Aurelia Valencia, a student at MiraCosta College in Oceanside. "For them, a college education is not even a dream."
Three years ago, Valencia said, her immigration status cost her a two-year college scholarship.
Valencia, who is now 21, came to California from Mexico when she was 8. She received her legal residency this year, but after graduating from Oceanside High School in 1998, she could not prove her residency and lost the two-year college scholarship. She said guidance and encouragement from her parents kept her going.
She enrolled in MiraCosta and is looking to transfer to Cal State San Marcos next year. But she said others are not as fortunate and drop out of high school to take low-paying jobs.
Cota said discouraged students who drop out become part of an "underclass," people who don't have drivers licenses and are either unemployed or are employed illegally and paid "under the table."
"We've already made the investment on these kids by paying for their high school, sometimes grade school, education," Cota said. She said she favors an amnesty law for students who have graduated from high school that would give kids the opportunity to become "productive members of society."
But critics of Firebaugh's bill say the law would benefit noncitizens over U.S. citizens from other states, who would continue to pay nonresident fees when they attend California schools.
Most Southwest Riverside County and North County representatives opposed the bill. They were state Sens. Ray Haynes, R-Riverside; David Kelley, R-San Diego; and Bill Morrow, R-Carlsbad, and Assembly members Pat Bates, R-Oceanside; and Bruce Thompson, R-Temecula.
Among those voting for the measure were state Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, R-Carlsbad.
Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel, R-Poway, said she opposed an early version of the bill because it did not make it clear that students would have to show proof of three years' residency in California and would be in the process of becoming a legal resident. She now supports the bill because it includes those provisions.
"I think we shouldn't let bureaucracy get in the way of taxpayers who are lawful California residents," she said.
Kaloogian also changed his vote when the provisions were made. He said that without access to higher education, students will never be able to fully assimilate.
"It's the greatest incentive to get people to become citizens," he said.
Others were opposed to giving undocumented students resident fees.
"If you want to pay resident fees, be a resident," Haynes said. "If you are not a resident, you are not entitled to pay resident fees. It's the bottom line."
But Latinos in North County insist that students should be given the opportunity to better their lives.
"When our students are accepted into our state colleges and universities, we know they have earned the right to be there," said Emily Wichmann, a Latina and a member of the Oceanside Unified School District Board of Trustees.
"Our undocumented students accepted to our colleges and universities have more than proven that they can compete and should be given the opportunity to get a piece of the American Dream."
Contact Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-5426 or email@example.com.