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New law will aid illegals

New laws: Price break on college

New law will aid undocumented

By Aurelio Rojas -- Bee Staff Writer Published 10:32 a.m. PST Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001

For a decade, thousands of accomplished students like Jair Camacho have been locked out of the state's colleges by a twist of fate.

They might have grown up in California and graduated with honors, as Camacho did from Rio Linda High School. But as undocumented students, they did not qualify for resident fees, nor could they afford steep out-of-state tuition.

Whether they have been unduly punished for decisions made by their parents -- Camacho was 9 when his family immigrated from Mexico -- or whether they were treated fairly is a debate that stirs strong emotions.

But beginning Tuesday, these students will again qualify for cheaper resident fees at the 23 campuses of the California State University system and the state's community colleges.

Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a bill reversing one of Gov. Pete Wilson's most controversial immigration policies -- a year after rejecting a similar measure.

Critics like Evelyn Miller of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform accuse the Democratic governor, who is seeking re-election, of "craven pandering to the Latino vote." But in signing AB 540, Davis said he was swayed by changes in the legislation and his belief that "kids who grew up and graduated from high school here should not be priced out of a future."

California joins Texas as the second state to pass legislation allowing college-eligible undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

To qualify in California, students must have attended three years of high school in the state and earned a diploma or equivalency degree. They must also sign an affidavit stating they have either begun the process of becoming legal residents or intend to.

The measure by Assemblymen Marco Firebaugh, D-Los Angeles, and Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, does not apply to the 10-campus University of California, which has a large measure of autonomy from the Legislature.

UC officials supported the measure but have concerns it could open the university system up to lawsuits. The UC Board of Regents is scheduled to discuss the issue at its January meeting.

But with the impetus provided by AB 540, Camacho is optimistic that one day he will be able to attend UC Davis and become a civil engineer. Camacho calls the measure "an investment in the future."

California has an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants, many with children who have spent most of their lives in the state.

"If you don't allow us to get an education, we're going to wind up in low-paying jobs and pay lower taxes," said Camacho, the son of a lumber warehouseman and day-care operator.

Now 21, Camacho was accepted to a UC campus after completing high school in 1998 with a 3.6 grade point average, but he could not afford the out-of-state fees.

"I was always pushing myself academically, even though I knew there was going to be a problem down the road," he said. "But I knew things would work out."

While keeping a close eye on the issue in the Legislature, Camacho has been working as a furniture mover and taking as many classes as time and money allow at Sacramento City College.

Community college fees are $11 per unit for Californians and $130 for non-residents. At UC schools, residents pay nearly $4,000 in annual fees; in addition, non-residents must pay nearly $11,000 in out-of-state tuition.

At state colleges, which Camacho plans to attend if the UC does not adopt a similar policy, yearly fees are about $2,000 for residents, while a full-time non-resident student would pay an additional $3,000 to $4,500 or more in out-of-state tuition.

Before 1990, undocumented students could qualify for resident fees if they had lived in California for a year and one day. But in a ruling issued during the height of the debate over illegal immigration, a state court said they could be charged as non-residents.

Education officials now estimate that undocumented immigrants account for less than half of 1 percent of the state's college enrollment. No one knows how many new students will take advantage of the new law. Estimates range from 500 to several thousand.

The law is taking effect at a time of renewed debate over immigration stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which authorities say were carried out by 19 foreign-born men who were legally in the country.

A congressional plan to liberalize immigration from Mexico, which would have benefitted Camacho, has been shelved. And in California, opponents of AB 540 have vowed to fight to reverse it.

"It's a travesty," said Miller of the Huntington Beach-based Coalition For Immigration Reform. "It's part of the creeping amnesty, and we will do everything in our power to pressure them to reverse this policy."

Miller contends the measure is unconstitutional because it discriminates against legal residents from other states who have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend California colleges.

UC officials acknowledge they have struggled with the legal issues presented by the measure and the possible economic consequences.

The UC receives almost $150 million a year in non-resident tuition, and officials say they will vigorously defend any lawsuits that threaten that revenue.

But backers of the measure, including Firebaugh, said the legal issues raised by opponents concern benefits based on residency. They note AB 540 is based on something completely different: attendance and graduation from a California high school.

The new law has provided added incentive for students like Eunice Ollervides, a junior at Roosevelt High School in Fresno who comes from a family of poor, undocumented immigrants.

Ollervides, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average and plans to study chemistry at Fresno State after she graduates in 2003, applauds the decision made by lawmakers in Sacramento.

"Somebody there heard about us," she said. "They did the right thing because there was too much of a (tuition) gap before."

The new law culminates a personal 10-year battle by Firebaugh, a self-described student radical as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley who never envisioned working in government before he graduated from law school at UCLA.

"It's given me a renewed sense of hope," said Firebaugh, who began work on the issue as a young legislative staff member. "I've learned you can affect change by working in government to make life better for people without power."