Controversial Oregon bill would give state college aid to illegal immigrants

Article author: 
Saul Hubbard
Article publisher: 
The Register Guard
Article date: 
Friday, April 3, 2015
Article category: 
Oregon Issues
Article Body: 

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are considering expanding a controversial 2013 law dubbed “tuition equity,” which allowed certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Oregon’s seven public universities.

This year, Senate Bill 932 would let those students — who must be Oregon high school graduates — receive state-funded need-based college scholarships through the Oregon Opportunity Grant program. The scholarships are up to $2,000 per student per year.

Proponents of the bill argue that those eligible, who’ve often spent much of their life in this country, face an unfair disadvantage in paying for college, because they aren’t eligible for subsidized federal student loans or most public scholarship programs.

“The lack of access to any kind of financial aid is a real barrier for these students,” said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat who spearheaded the initial “tuition equity” policy and is a chief sponsor on SB 932.

“The Opportunity Grant program was designed for precisely this type of student: low-income, first-generation college attendee,” he said. “These students are Oregonians like everyone else.”

But the proposal comes at a tricky time for majority Democrats. Last November, Oregon voters thrashed, by a 2-to-1 ratio, a proposal to grant short-term driving licenses to illegal immigrants. Lawmakers had passed that measure in 2013 with bipartisan support.

Advocates at Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a group that fought that measure, have been caught off guard by SB 932.

“When legislators passed (the “tuition equity” bill) they said repeatedly that it wouldn’t allow these students to receive government financial aid,” said Jim Ludwick, a spokesman for the group. “Two years later, we’re going right back on it.”

The new proposal is also controversial because the Oregon Opportunity Grant program, the state’s primary college aid spending, has been woefully underfunded recently. Only around 20 percent of eligible students received the grants this year, essentially on a “first-come-first-served” basis.

To address that, lawmakers are proposing to bolster state funding for the grant program by around $30 million in the next two-year budget cycle, about a 25 percent increase.

But regardless, Ludwick said, passage of SB 932 would mean that “citizens will be competing against illegal aliens for these scholarships.”

“When you have such a resounding vote (on the driving license measure), with 35 out of 36 counties opposing it, it means that the vast majority of citizens don’t want special benefits for illegal immigrants,” he said. “I don’t think you could see it any other way.”

Dembrow countered that SB 932 and the drivers’ card vote as two “separate issues.”

“People understand who these students are,” he said. “They’ve grown up here, they’ve gone to our high schools ... Students from out-of-state can live in Oregon for one year and be eligible (for an opportunity grant). These students aren’t.”

The Oregon Opportunity Grant program doled out $58 million this school year to 35,000 students at eligible private and public Oregon community college and universities. Students’ families must have a gross income under $70,000 annually to be eligible. Students received a maximum of $2,000 this year.

Maria Saldana, a high school senior from Salem who has received federal deferred immigration status, was one of several students who urged lawmakers to approve SB 932 at a public hearing last month.

“I panicked when I realized that all my plans of paying for college with need-based financial aid, scholarships and even student loans would automatically be eliminated” because of her status, she said. “It is stressful knowing that I do not qualify for a lot of the help that my peers do.”
The number of students who have received in-state tuition rates in Oregon because the initial “tuition equity” bill, is “overwhelmingly small,” said Rep. Jessica Vega-Pederson, a Portland Democrat, at the hearing.

Thirty-two students used the program in the 2013-14 school year. An estimated 76 students used it in the 2014-15 fall term. Legislative analysts expect the number to grow.

Vega-Pederson also noted that six other states, including Washington State and California, allow illegal-immigrant “tuition equity” students to access state financial aid.

SB 932 also would make a couple of minor changes to the 2013 “tuition equity” law. It would remove the requirement that an illegal-immigrant student would have to start college within three years of high school graduation be eligible for in-state tuition. A requirement that they complete a college degree in five years would also be eliminated.

The bill appears to have some traction.

The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee approved it on a party-line vote this week, sending it to the Legislature’s budget committee.

The bill also has one powerful sponsor: Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat. Courtney was unavailable to comment on the bill this week.

Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican who voted “no” on SB 932 in committee, said he believes that the federal government needs “to act on immigration and secure our border.”

“Having states provide additional benefits to undocumented immigrants sends the wrong message to others that might wish to come to the U.S.,” he said.

“This bill has been portrayed as not being very costly,” Knopp added. “But if it costs a citizen the opportunity to receive their grant, that should be concerning to everyone.”

If SB 932 passed in its current form, the measure couldn’t be referred to voters, like the drivers’ license measure was. That’s because lawmakers have included an “emergency clause” in the bill, which means it would go into effect immediately on passage. Without an emergency clause, opponents would have the normal 90 days to collect the necessary signatures to refer the policy to voters at the next general election.

Dembrow said the emergency clause was included in SB 932 because he wants “tuition equity” students to be able to access opportunity grants in the coming school year.

But Ludwick said the bill clearly doesn’t address an actual emergency. The clause is being used to block a referral to voters, he said, as lawmakers often do with controversial bills.

“It’s clear that the framers of our Constitution wanted citizens to have a right to refer laws” to a public vote, he said. “The Legislature wants to deny citizens that right to the referral process.”