House panel OKs scholarships for undocumented immigrants

May 24, 2011

(WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
Students protested at a GOP office in Chicago last fall.

An Illinois bill that could help tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants attend college is a step closer to becoming law.

A state House of Representatives committee voted Tuesday afternoon for the Illinois Dream Act, which would set up scholarships for the students. The vote could lead to a House floor debate as early as Wednesday. Governor Pat Quinn says he would sign the measure into law.

The bill would create a commission to raise money for the scholarships — all privately funded — and award them to students who arrived in the country before age 16. The legislation would also allow children of immigrants to join state-run college savings programs and would require high-school counselors to make students aware of the scholarships and the savings programs.

The state Senate passed the bill 45-11 on May 4. Eleven of the votes for the legislation came from Republicans.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, who supports the measure, then referred it to his chamber’s Executive Committee, which passed it Tuesday along party lines, 7-4.

The Executive Committee members who voted against the bill included Assistant House Republican Leader Dan Brady of Bloomington. Brady told WBEZ afterwards he was concerned that the Illinois Student Assistance Commission would play a role. That agency runs a troubled pre-paid tuition program. “There’s legislation calling for an internal audit” of the commission, Brady said. “And so before we create something else, I’d like to see what happened — what the audit shows.”

Brady said he had a second problem with the bill: “Certainly we want to try to assist [undocumented students] in their education but, on the other hand, I don’t think it should be at the expense of other students — citizens — who may lose the ability to have a seat at one of our universities across the state.”

The bill’s supporters don’t deny that it would increase competition among potential college students. “But Illinois has already invested a lot to get the undocumented students through high school,” said Lawrence Benito, deputy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “The state also benefits when potential college students are judged on academic merit, not whether they can pay.”

Republicans are getting an earful from Tea Party activists upset about the Senate vote and convinced the bill would lure illegal immigrants to Illinois.

But immigrant advocates are warning the lawmakers to keep other constituents in mind. “Look at the demographic changes in some of these suburban swing districts,” Benito said. “There are 640,000 U.S. citizen children of immigrants [in Illinois]. Of these children, 70,000 will turn 18 by 2012. They’re going to remember. This is an important issue to the Latino immigrant community.”

The Illinois measure has no relation to a federal bill, also called the Dream Act, which would lay a path to citizenship for undocumented students. That measure has stalled repeatedly over the last decade. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, reintroduced it this month.