Few predicted Sen. Barbara Bailey would carry the torch for illegal immigrants seeking taxpayer support for college because the conservative Oak Harbor Republican had been down on the notion for months.
Yet there she was last Thursday in front of reporters extolling the virtues of her bill enabling many sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants to seek state financial aid starting July 1.
“It’s not about immigration,” she said. “It’s about making sure we take care of students living in our state.”
The next day, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the so-called “Real Hope Act,” reaching a critical station in a sojourn that began when Bailey assumed the leadership of the Higher Education Committee and her Majority Coalition Caucus took control of the chamber.
The journey isn’t quite finished. The House has passed a nearly identical bill it dubs the “Dream Act” and the two chambers must sort out what to call it, if anything, and get it to Gov. Jay Inslee for signing.
At that point, Washington would join California, Texas and New Mexico as the only states to spend tax dollars on the college education of immigrants who are not citizens.
With the toughest work done, Bailey spent the past week soaking in praise from once-loud critics and answering questions from long-time allies. She’s received e-mails filled with thanks and others containing vows to oppose her in the next election.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Bailey, who won a seat in the state House in 2002 and reached the Senate by beating Democratic powerhouse Mary Margaret Haugen in 2012.
“I knew that there would be some people even in my caucus that would not vote for this. I’ve really tried to be about finding good solutions to tough problems.”
Bailey is an unquestioned conservative with a history of scolding Democrats for expanding the size and scope of government programs without providing enough money to fund them.
Until last week, she took on the politically charged subject of financial aide for undocumented immigrants with that view.
“I think the state’s financial assistance program needs to be looked at more closely before eligibility is extended to a new group,” she wrote in a March 2013 for Washington Focus. “State government has a bad habit of promising many things, but delivering few. It would be disingenuous for us to make an unfunded promise that can’t be kept.”
That’s what made her turnaround last week so startling because her bill doesn’t provide money for the 32,000 eligible students awaiting financial aid today – even before any undocumented immigrant joins the pool.
Bailey insisted the Senate bill does a better job fulfilling the promise because it would pump another $5 million into the financial aid program to ensure those already awaiting grants won’t be harmed.
But money may not be all that brought about a change-of-heart.
On Jan. 17, she met with students from her district who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. They shared stories of their growing up and how they may be unable to realize their dream of attending college because they can’t afford it. Bailey shared stories of her upbringing, too. Tears were shed by students and by Bailey.
Whether this was the seminal moment in her decision-making is unknown, but it did seem to ignite the torch Bailey carried last week.
“As a little girl in southeast Missouri, barefoot most of the time with not enough money to go to college, who would have thought,” she said. “I’m very blessed. We all are. I want to make sure that all of our students in this state have the same opportunity regardless of who they are.”
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.