House OKs college aid for young illegal immigrants

SEATTLE — The Washington House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a measure making young illegal immigrants eligible for state college financial aid.

The measure’s bipartisan 77-20 vote was highlighted by impassioned speeches by Republicans who broke ranks with their party to vote in favor of the bill.

“People will seek this nation out from all over the world. They want a life of opportunity,” said Republican Rep. Charles Ross of Naches. “These kids, I want them to someday go to Cornell, to be a state lawmaker or more.”

House lawmakers amended the bill on the floor to open college aid to all young illegal immigrants. The bill has undergone several changes since it was introduced earlier this year.

The bill’s previous version made only young immigrants who had qualified for the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program eligible for the State Needs Grant. That federal program provides young immigrants who arrived in the United States as children a legal way to live in the country on renewable two-year stays, if they meet certain age and non-criminal history criteria.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where a similar bill did not get a hearing. But advocates are optimistic.

“I think that this is a perfect bipartisan issue for a bipartisan-led Senate. And I think the chances are pretty good,” said Emily Murphy of OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy group.

Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey, who chairs the higher education committee, said she would try to set a hearing for the bill.

“It is worth a discussion,” Bailey said.

Opponents said the measure promises financial aid in a time when the state doesn’t have enough money for all students in need. One lawmaker opposed the bill because of he said illegal immigrants don’t follow the law.

“We’re a nation and state of laws and because we are, we’re governed by the rule of law, and as much of a humanitarian issue as this is, as much compassion that folks in my own caucus and my friends across the aisle have shown, it doesn’t change the fact we have to address, the foundation of this conversation and that is the rule of law,” said Republican Rep. Jason Overstreet of Blaine.

The measure, dubbed the “Washington Dream Act” to echo the federal efforts to provide legal status to young immigrants, is one of the main bills being lobbied by immigrant advocates this year.

Proponents have said the average number of college students in Washington each year who can’t provide proof of legal residency is about 550. They estimate that number would grow by about 20 or 30 percent if the financial aid measure is approved. Using those numbers, they estimate costs in the next biennium to be between $3.3 million and $3.5 million.

Ten years ago, the Legislature voted to make students who entered the country illegally eligible for in-state tuition.

Republican Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger said the bill “recognizes children that are my neighbors, children that we’ve shared a baseball diamond with, that we’ve gone to concerts and movie theaters together with. People that no matter where they come from, find themselves here and by voting for this, we are deciding whether they’ll be able to fully participate in the life of our community or not.”

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Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte and Mike Baker contributed to this report from Olympia.

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