California’s DREAM Act Is Finally a Reality — But Will Momentum Spread?

On Saturday, Gov. Brown signed the second half of the two-part legislation into law, distinguishing California as a leader in pro-education immigrant rights.

By Noelle de la Paz Oct 11, 2011

The California DREAM Act is finally a reality. On Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the second half of the two-part legislation into law. The new bills do not allow a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students, but do allow them to access state financial aid for college. The bills mark an important victory for immigrant rights advocates, and is seen by many as an important step in building national momentum for pro-immigrant legislation across the country.

Since Assemblyman Gil Cedillo introduced the state-level DREAM Act in 2006, it repeatedly passed in the California legislature but was vetoed three times by former Gov. Schwarzenegger. Cedillo took a different approach this year, splitting it into two bills.

AB 131, the more controversial of the two-bill package, grants qualifying undocumented immigrant college students the opportunity to apply for state funded financial aid programs such as Cal grants–but only after students who are citizens or legal residents are served first. AB 130, which Brown signed in July, makes them eligible for privately funded non-state scholarships.

The recent victory is seen as a positive step in the push for a federal DREAM Act.

"This is a really important win for two reasons," said Gaby Pacheco of United We DREAM, a national network of youth-led immigrant rights organizations. "The first reason is the momentum it gives for other states that have been looking to pass similar legislation."

Pacheco continued, "The other thing [the California DREAM Act] does is that it balances out the negative legislation–like in Alabama–that’s hurting immigrants, hurting the morale of youth and students there. We see them leaving the state because of fear. It shows states like Alabama they’re wrong in what they’re doing."

Despite that fear, many undocumented youth have been active participants in lobbying efforts on both national and local levels. Those activists, known as DREAMers, have been working tirelessly to bring this issue to the national stage.

Last December, the federal DREAM Act was defeated in the Senate. But efforts to enact state-level policies have been strengthening. New Mexico and Texas now allow undocumented immigrant students access to public financial aid. This year, Illinois and Maryland have been advancing similar bills, and Connecticut and Rhode Island also have legislation in the works.

Although the state laws differ from the federal statute because they do not provide a path to citizenship, educational access and tuition equity for undocumented students is especially significant in light of recent anti-immigration laws.

Maria Luna, a California member of United We DREAM and recent graduate of Sacramento State University, lobbied in Sacramento, motivated by DREAMers who came before her. "Someone had to fight for me for AB540," she said, describing the 2001 bill that granted in-state college tuition to qualified undocumented students in California. "I felt like I owed it to the younger community to fight. That’s what drove me to be so involved."

Despite widespread support, critics of the DREAM Act attack it for allowing undocumented students to access public funds, especially while the state cuts back on education spending as a whole. Yet when undocumented immigrant students pay full tuition, part of it pays into a pot that is redistributed as financial aid for low-income students with citizenship papers.

DREAM Team LA reports that according to a statement released by the Office of Governor Jerry Brown, "The California Department of Finance estimates that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants as a result of AB 131, at a cost of $14.5 million. The overall Cal Grant program is funded at $1.4 billion, meaning that 1 percent of all Cal Grant funds will be potentially impacted by AB 131 when the law goes into effect."

With AB 130 set to go into effect January 1, 2012, and AB 131 beginning on January 1, 2013, the message it sends may be more powerful than the actual most financial realities. 

Luna is very happy for the high school students who are currently struggling with access to higher education. "We receive a lot of calls from young DREAMers to explain how it works." Next steps include tours through the state to educate undocumented youth on the bill. For all their efforts, Luna hopes for a more positive view of DREAMers and the rights they continue to fight for.

"We have a lot of hope. It’s exhausting, but it’s definitely worth it."