By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) - The trustees of the State University of New York system are the latest to register their support for laws that would allow undocumented immigrant students to apply for financial aid.
The board of trustees’ resolution, passed Wednesday, joins similar gestures of support voiced by the City University of New York, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York State Department of Education and a number of state and federal legislators.
“The current demographic realities of New York State indicate that many of the brightest and hardest working students eligible to enroll at SUNY are of undocumented status, and it is imperative that SUNY remain accessible to these students,” Board Chairman H. Carl McCall said in a press release. “SUNY will work with stakeholders to develop sensible legislation that provides this deserved access and financial support.”
The SUNY resolution does not support any specific legislative proposals, but there are several bills pending that would allow undocumented students to access some of the same programs offered to New York citizens or permanent legal residents.
One, the Education Equity for DREAMers Act, would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country before turning 18 to be eligible for state- and city-funded financial aid programs, grants, loans and scholarships. Applicants would also be required to be under the age of 35, reside in New York for at least two years, have graduated from a high school with a diploma or equivalent and have no felony convictions.
Proponents of such laws say they are an investment that pays off in future tax revenue generated by students who are better qualified for higher-paying jobs and have a path to citizenship.
Chung-Wha Hong, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said that the proposals are gaining the support of educational institutions who see talented students - regardless of immigration status - as a community asset.
“Especially during the economic downturn, everyone agrees that we have to encourage young people to get the skills they need and to go to college,” Hong said. “Students who worked to graduate from high school, which is not an easy thing when you grow up under the barriers they did... to make education impossible (for them) is just not acceptable.”
Hong said it's unclear exactly how many students would benefit from such legislation because most schools don’t track immigration status.
“But from all indications it’s a manageable number,” Hong said. “We think it may be a few thousand students who benefit from this. It’s going to raise our college readiness and graduation numbers for the whole state, if this works.”
One of those students in Lucy Allain, 19, who came to the United States on a tourist visa with her mother at 10 years old. They overstayed, and Allain grew up in the New York City area. Allain maintains a 4.0 grade point average. She said she feels no connection to her native Peru, and that her future is here in the United States.
Allain is now finishing her first year at Queensborough Community College. Because of her immigration status, she isn’t eligible for state or federal aid programs. She currently finances her studies through a mix of savings, money from her mother and a scholarship given by the New York Immigration Coalition. The passage of the New York state DREAM act would allow her to pursue her dream of transferring to a four-year college and becoming a broadcast journalist.
“I think we deserve to have an opportunity for financial aid and scholarships – that should be equal,” Allain said. “It’s not our fault that we’re undocumented. Having to go through that struggle - it's not like we don’t do anything. When we compete for scholarships, we have to have good grades and show that we’re trying to excel in something that we believe in, something that we can make better in this country.”
But opponents of extending financial aid to illegal immigrants say it encourages further breaches of immigration law and gives undocumented students an advantage that all citizens do not have.
Heritage Foundation analyst Hans von Spakovsky said he believes New York is already violating federal law by offering in-state tuition to undocumented students but not to nonresident students who are legal citizens. He also said that extending financial aid eligibility to the undocumented would penalize other students by forcing them to compete for the same pool of limited aid.
Von Spakovsky said that as the father of a high school senior, “it would make me pretty angry if she did not get financial aid as a United States citizen in favor of someone who is in the U.S. illegally.”
“I don’t think it's fair to taxpayers," von Spakovsky said. "We are a country that is based on the rule of law."