Senate OKs aid for undocumented immigrant students

OLYMPIA – They’ve lived in Washington for years but didn’t arrive in the country legally — their parents brought them.

For that reason, children of undocumented immigrants could never receive state financial aid for college.

That is on the way to changing.

On Friday, the Senate approved a bill making these young students eligible for taxpayer-funded aid through the State Need Grant program.

Leaders of the Republican-led majority overcame opposition in their caucus to bring Senate Bill 6523 to the floor where it passed 35-10. Twelve members of the Majority Coalition Caucus, including its two centrist Democrats, joined the 23 minority Democrats in the final vote.

“To me this is really about making sure all kids have the keys to hope, that all kids have the keys to opportunity, that all kids have the keys to the American dream,” caucus member and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said in the floor debate.

The Senate bill will be sent to the House, which passed nearly identical legislation on the opening day of the session by a 71-23 margin.

Friday’s vote will stand as a signature moment of the 2014 session. Leaders of the Senate majority had to override objections from conservatives in their caucus in order to vote on the controversial social policy, and give Democrats a political victory.

And it all happened quickly. The bill was introduced Thursday afternoon and reached the Senate floor Friday morning, bypassing the customary trek through the higher education and budget committees.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, who fought the House legislation a year ago, sponsored the Senate bill.

She called it a better approach because it provides $5 million to ease the demand for grants from a pool of eligible students that will now expand. The House bill contains no funding.

The State Need Grant Program received $303 million and served roughly 74,000 low-income students in the 2012-13 school year. But 32,000 students eligible for aid received nothing due to a lack of funds.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said the added dollars still aren’t enough to cover every eligible student. “Let’s be realistic. It’s not going to solve the problem of how these young people will find funding to go to college,” said King, who voted for the bill. “It may help a few of them but it’s not going to help all of them.”

That weighed heavy on the mind of Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, before he cast a vote against the bill.

“I do care about these young people but on the other hand I don’t think it’s going to do what we want it to do,” Pearson said in an interview. “I still think we’re making false promises. To me it’s more of a feel-good thing and I don’t want to do a feel-good thing.”

What the Senate and House call their respective bills is another difference and one which might keep the legislation from quickly reaching Gov. Jay Inslee for signing.

House Democrats dub theirs the “Dream Act” while Senate Republicans term theirs as the “Real Hope Act.” It might not seem like a big deal until Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, termed it the Dream Act in a floor speech.

That drew a rebuff from Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, the prime sponsor of the bill.

“This act is the Real Hope Act. No more dreams. This is real hope,” she said.

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