Officials at California’s four-year public universities are reaching out to an estimated 10,000 undergraduate students who might qualify for a special loan aimed at reducing their tuition — a program that further distinguishes the state as a national trendsetter in providing services to unauthorized immigrants.
The California DREAM low-interest loans are designated for unauthorized immigrant students enrolled at University of California or California State University campuses. The program was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, but funding didn’t become available until now.
It’s the latest in a series of measures that the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Brown have approved in their push to help unauthorized immigrants integrate into mainstream society.
They have ushered through legislation that enables this population of Californians to obtain driver licenses, eliminates the word “alien” when describing unauthorized immigrants in the state labor code and expands access to health care for children of such parents.
Critics said these actions only spur more illegal immigration, hurt law-abiding taxpayers and reward individuals who should not be granted any privileges because they have violated this country’s rules.
The California DREAM loan program’s initial $7 million allotment — $5 million for the UC and $2 million for CSU — will be distributed to eligible applicants in the following weeks. The state provided half of the sum and the two university systems covered the other half. The loans are for the 2015-16 academic year, and they’re retroactive to last fall.
The UC system will divide the $5 million among its nine undergraduate campuses, with the amount for each school based on the number of qualified students there, UC spokeswoman Claire Doan said.
She estimates that UC San Diego has about 200 unauthorized immigrant students.
The Cal State system will take a similar approach with its campuses, which include San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos. About 250 students at Cal State San Marcos are eligible for the loan, according to a spokeswoman for the school.
Each qualified student can borrow up to $4,000 for this academic year at an interest rate of 4.29 percent. Once they graduate, borrowers must begin repaying their loan after a six-month grace period.
Future funding is contingent on money being available from the state budget, according to school administrators.
Supporters of the loan program said it could erase significant financial barriers for unauthorized immigrant students, who cannot receive federal grants or federally subsidized loans.
“It helps alleviate the burden for undocumented students, many of whom are often forced to take quarters/semesters off or take on outside jobs to offset the cost of tuition,” Doan said.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, creator of the California DREAM loan program through Senate Bill 1210, said: “I’m very proud of the fact that California has always led when it comes to providing much-needed resources for our undocumented student population — understanding that they are here, that this is their home and that many of them were brought here not out of their own volition.”
Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has helped advance immigration-related legislation for several years, including passage of Assembly Bill 540. That law allows non-resident college students who meet specific requirements, including unauthorized immigrants, to pay in-state tuition and fees instead of the far-higher expenses for out-of-state students.
Students who fall within the parameters of AB 540 are eligible for the California DREAM loan program.
Opponents of the program said it wrongfully rewards people who shouldn’t be in the United States in the first place.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., said the program’s funding should instead be used to help law-abiding families in financial need.
“There are a lot of people in California who are struggling. Their kids want a good education. Even with the availability of federal loans, it doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of these many families,” he said.
Robin Hvidston, executive director of the Claremont-based group We the People Rising, said public money is being abused.
“These taxpayer-funded loans should be available to veterans who have served this nation. Why not aim this program to specifically help American foster care children? This is discrimination against U.S. citizens who are not able to partake in the program,” Hvidston said.
At least 18 states have policies that permit unauthorized immigrant students to pay in-state tuition rates, according to an October report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sixteen of those states, including California, have done so through legislation.
In addition, California is one of five states that allow such students to receive state grants for higher education, the legislatures group said.
It’s unclear whether any other state besides California has a higher-education loan program for unauthorized immigrants.
Zenén Jaimes Pérez, policy analyst for United We Dream, the country’s largest immigrant youth-led organization, said California has set a national precedent in establishing rights for unauthorized immigrants.
“When I travel to other states, a lot of folks are wondering, ‘How do we get to where California is?’” he said.
The movement supporting “DREAMers,” as youths living in the U.S. illegally are often called, took off more than a decade ago and has grown to become a focal point of the immigration debate.
They’re currently part of the spotlight on a case involving the U.S. Supreme Court, which is preparing to review an injunction blocking President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration. That measure would provide a temporary waiver from deportation for up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants and expand a program that granted various rights to “DREAMers.”
Article originally found in the San Diego Union-Tribune