Undocumented immigrants could get college aid under Senate bill

Dancing for immigration reform

By Danielle Killey

Minnesota senators approved a plan that supporters say would bring the dream of attending college closer to reality for students like Deisy Rivera.

“It will help me a lot,” the 16-year-old Red Wing resident said.

Minnesota senators passed a bill 41-23 Wednesday to allow undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, such as the University of Minnesota and those in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, and apply for state financial aid.

Bill sponsor Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said more students would be able to attend school under the change because it would be more affordable.

Pappas said the proposal, known as the Minnesota Dream Act or Prosperity Act, might only impact a few hundred students, but “it’s very symbolic for a lot of immigrant students who dare to dream that they too can get a college education.”

Rivera said she hopes to attend college in Minnesota after she graduates and knows others who also would benefit from the change.

“It will give them hope, and they won’t be scared,” she said.

Pappas said all students who have grown up in Minnesota should have the same opportunities.

Undocumented immigrant students must have attended at least three years of high school and graduate from a Minnesota school to be eligible.

They also must have already applied to be legal U.S. citizens or do so as soon as possible.

Some Republicans supported the in-state tuition provision but tried to remove state financial aid eligibility.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he is fine with the tuition, “but when we are talking about the taxpayers’ money, that’s where I personally draw the line.”

Pappas said the bill simply would broaden the aid program, not reduce the number of people eligible. Other students likely would only see about $2 less per year, she said.

“I think that taking away the option for financial aid really does take away the dream,” Pappas said.

She said even with in-state tuition, it will be difficult for many of the students to afford college.

The change at the state level could mean the difference between attending college or not, Rivera said.

“Many students just give up (now),” she said.

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for federal financial aid.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said the state should not step in to what she said is a national issue.

“I feel this bill is premature because the federal government hasn’t acted yet,” Ortman said.

Some also argued that without federal action, the undocumented immigrants would not legally be able to work after graduating.

Hundreds gathered outside the state Capitol on Wednesday pushing for federal and state reform, and many praised the bill’s passage.

“The country and state are moving in this direction,” Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “We are taking a step ahead of many states and I think they will follow.”

Pappas said if the bill is approved Minnesota would become the 16th state to offer in-state tuition and the fourth to offer state financial aid to undocumented immigrants.

“We cannot wait for the federal government,” Pappas said. “We have to act.”

Pappas said the next step will be to try to add the bill to an overall higher education bill when a committee of House and Senate members meets to put together a final plan.

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