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Albany lawmakers OK college aid for undocumented immigrants

ALBANY – Catalina Cruz was standing at the state Capitol Wednesday morning greeting people as they streamed into a conference room.

“It’s going to happen today," she said smiling to one group.

Several hours later, Cruz, a Democratic assemblywoman from Queens, was among the yes votes to enact the Dream Act, a long-stalled measure that will make thousands of undocumented immigrants eligible for New York State financial aid to attend college.

Cruz and her mother came to the United States, without immigration papers, in 1992 when she was 9.

“We were running away from violence,’’ she said of the drug wars taking place at the time in her native Colombia. They ended up in Queens, where she went to public school and, later, law school at the City University of New York.

But Cruz, who would go on to be a labor lawyer and a U.S. citizen, was blocked from getting government financial aid – such as the state’s Tuition Assistance Program – because she was an undocumented immigrant at the time.

That situation will end if legislation the Assembly and Senate passed Wednesday becomes law permitting undocumented immigrants to be eligible for government-funded general awards and TAP, the state’s main college financial aid program that awards grants of up to $5,165 annually.

The Dream Act will cost an estimated $27 million.

“Today, we right a wrong," said Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the Dream Act in the 150-member house.

Supporters of the measure say the Dream Act is just the beginning for this session. They say the Legislature is likely to consider measures to permit undocumented immigrants to obtain New York State driver's licenses, and to give new wage and housing protections for those who came through the U.S. borders illegally.

These supporters say they are emboldened to act in New York, one of the nation’s most politically blue states, because of President Trump’s immigration policies.

Critics of the Dream Act, which has died over the years when the Senate was in Republican Party hands, slammed Democrats for pushing through the immigration bill.

“When we can take care of every American citizen who is here legally and played by the rules … then we can talk about those who are not," said Sen. Rob Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican.

Instead, Ortt said the Democrats are taking New York on immigration issues down a path that undermines federal law “and the fabric of this country.’’

The Senate and Assembly approved the measure along party lines.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has embraced the Dream Act, putting his own version into a state budget plan he unveiled last week. But Cuomo’s office would not say what Cuomo intends to do with the Dream Act bill that passed Wednesday. Cuomo routinely vetoes bills that spend state money and are approved by lawmakers outside the normal state budget process, which is just getting underway in advance of the April 1 new fiscal year start.

Cuomo Wednesday evening said he looks forward "to finally making (the Dream Act) law for all New Yorkers this year.''

“We do this as a symbol that you will be guaranteed an education and that the door to higher education is open to all children of New York State," said De La Rosa, the bill sponsor who immigrated to the United States as a young child from the Dominican Republic.

But Republicans noted that the bill passed Wednesday differs from Cuomo’s budget plan in several ways. The bill that passed would also apply to temporary visa holders. “These are transients with no indication that they will remain in this state yet they will receive this benefit," said Sen. Joseph Griffo, an Oneida County Republican who is serving as acting minority leader.

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The bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Luis Sepulveda, a Democrat whose Bronx district includes large numbers of immigrants or children of immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, dismissed concerns about the $27 million price tag of the Dream Act. He said undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $150 million in state and local taxes in New York State.

“Dreamers are the best of the best," he said. It makes little sense, he added, to provide grade school and high school education access to children who are undocumented – required by federal law – and then not also help provide access to state financial aid for college.

But Republicans in the Senate, where the debate was sharply worded at times on both sides, said the Dream Act will take $27 million away from legal residents seeking college aid. The bill is “a slap in the face for all the hardworking taxpayers who play by the rules and struggle for the costs of a college education," said Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Saratoga County Republican.

The measure requires that college students who are undocumented immigrants and seeking state college aid must have either attended a high school in New York for two or more years, or graduated from a New York high school and applied to college within five years of their high school graduation. Those with a New York high school equivalency diploma are also eligible. It will cover awards up to the tuition and fees charged by public colleges in New York.

Undocumented students applying for the aid also must file an affidavit with the college that they are seeking to legalize their immigration status “or will file such an application as soon as he or she is eligible to do so," the legislation states.

Democrats, said Sen. Fred Akshar, a Broome County Republican, acted Wednesday to “roll out the red carpet for illegals … at the expense of hardworking, legal, middle-class taxpayers in New York."

Democrats called the Dream Act a “first step” for immigration issues in Albany this year. They said they will try pass legislation letting undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver’s licenses. Such an effort was started briefly, via executive order, by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007.

Wage laws would also be tightened if some Democrats are successful this year in addressing a problem in which employers do not pay legal wages to undocumented immigrants and the workers are fearful about alerting labor department authorities.

Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican, said he could support elements of the Dream Act bill, such as allowing undocumented immigrants to participate in 529 college savings programs. But he said there are too many middle-class families in his district struggling to afford college. “I do not believe it is fair," he said of the Dream Act bill.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, noted the Assembly had previously enacted a measure – blocked in the Senate when controlled by Republicans – called the Liberty Act, which did such things as blocking police in New York from stopping or questioning anyone based on their “perceived” immigration status.

Heastie said those other immigration-related measures will be discussed privately among Democrats to chart out a course this session.

“I want people to be clear the Democratic Assembly stands with immigrants," Heastie said.

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