Effort tries to get illegal immigrants college aid

SEATTLE — With the federal government giving young illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a chance to stay in the country, advocates in Washington state are relaunching efforts to open state financial aid to college students who don’t have documents.

“Now these kids can live and work here without fear of deportation,” said Ricardo Sanchez, chairman of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, the main group behind the effort. “The financial aid makes more sense.”

But Sanchez faces an uphill battle in Olympia.

The state’s financial aid pot — the needs grant program — is already strained after years of economic woes and rising tuition costs. Despite lawmakers providing additional money, more students who qualify aren’t getting aid because demand keeps growing.

More so, state financial aid is often tied with federal aid, something that students who qualify under the program can’t apply for.

Add the reluctance by lawmakers, including conservatives ones, and opposition from some constituents to give financial aid to students who entered the country without proper documentation.

“The state is in the hole by significant amounts of money. We’re gonna give significant resources to people who I think were given illegally a legal status,” said Bob West, chairman of Grassroots of Yakima Valley, a tea party group that started as an organization to lobby for strict immigration enforcement in Olympia.

West, who three years ago testified against a similar bill, said that expanding the eligibility would act as further encouragement for immigrants to come to the country away from official channels.

“I realize that families come here and come here with small children, who are obviously not making the choice,” said Craig Fisher, another member of West’s group. “They come here to have a better life, if they come here for that and if the children and the children are benefited, that’s another incentive for the parents. I think it’s better if we approach it for the standpoint of legal immigration.”

In June, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children are able to apply for two-year permissions to stay in the country if they meet certain requirements.

The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants nationwide. They are able to apply for work permits as well, though they don’t obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship. Under the rules, people who qualify for the program can also be current students.

Dovetailing with the new program, Sanchez plans to lead an effort to get a measure passed in Olympia during the next legislative session that would make young illegal immigrants eligible for state financial aid. He tried in 2009, but the measure didn’t make it past committees controlled by Democrats.

Sanchez said the amount money that the new allocation would increase is small compared to the overall pot.

Sanchez argued that these students and their parents have contributed their share to Washington’s economy. They pay taxes — the chief source of income for the state’s general budget. And many of the students who would benefit are children of agricultural workers, who help maintain one of the state’s chief economic sectors.

“What’s at stake is giving kids hope,” Sanchez said. “Often times for any child in poverty, they don’t understand what higher education means or what it costs, it’s especially true for undocumented students, especially for their parents who don’t have the slightest clue. If kids grow up saying to themselves, I’m not going to college because I’m an illegal alien … it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Students who are illegal immigrants already qualify for in-state tuition.

The state estimated in 2009 that making illegal immigrants who are students illegible for financial aid would cost about $7 million by the 2011-2013 budget cycle. State analysts assumed the change in eligibility would add more than 1,000 students statewide in any given year.

But Rachelle Sharpe, director of financial aid at the Washington Student Achievement Council, said it’s really not known how many students who are illegal immigrants are in the state, much less if they would apply for college.

Those estimates, she said, were given to provide lawmakers an idea of increment.

Should the bill pass, the added students would likely be absorbed into the already growing demand for state financial aid. Even if eligibility is expanded to these students, it’s not guaranteed they would receive aid.

Only 2 percent of all students who receive state grants only get state money, she said.

Students who qualify for the program cannot apply for federal student aid, said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton.

In 2011-2012, the state needs-grant pot was $266 million, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council. The agency estimated that it number would increase to more than $300 million in the following year.

About 74,000 students received the state needs grant, but more than 31,000 who were eligible did not receive funding in the 2011-2012 school year, the agency reported.

Sen. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, a Democrat from Seattle, said there seems to be more support in the senate this year, which would be a bigger hurdle to pass than the lower chamber, if the current Democrat-Republic split holds.

“We want to see more kids graduate from high school,” Kenney said.

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