After gaining some momentum at the end of last year, the New York State Dream Act, referred to committee in both the state Senate and Assembly, faces an uphill battle, especially in the Republican-led Senate, immigrant advocates and lawmakers say.
Before it was amended at the end of November and beginning of December, the bill included a slew of provisions, such as allowing illegal New York students to obtain state ID cards. Like the federal Dream Act, the state bill has always honed in on immigrant students in good standing who were brought to the country as minors.
Now the state bill focuses solely on granting non-U.S. immigrant students, both legal and illegal, access to public financial aid for higher education.
As hopes for a federal Dream Act have faded, immigrant advocates seemed to view the state Dream Act as the best vehicle for giving illegal students as many rights as possible, although only the federal government can grant citizenship. When the New York Board of Regents threw in its support for legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants access to state funds, the bill gained momentum.
But since it’s been amended, some are finding themselves disappointed with its limited scope, while acknowledging that cutting away the Dream Act’s more comprehensive and controversial provisions and honing in on the element with the broadest support has given it a fighting chance at passing.
“We knew we were going to have too much opposition,” explained Rocio Cruz, the staff director for Assemblyman Guillermo Linares (D-Manhattan), of the decision to amend the bill. Linares is the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, which has a large Democratic majority.
“We’re pretty sure it’s going to pass the committee,” Cruz said, adding that the goal is to have the bill voted on at the end of this year’s legislative session, in May or June, to give it time to garner support.
Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights), an outspoken advocate of the state Dream Act, pointed to the accompanying Dream Fund bill he introduced in November, which would set up a state-run nonprofit charged with administering private — not public — funds to would-be immigrant college students.
Because it lacks the public provision, it’s chances are much higher of passing, many indicated.
“There is a great deal of optimism that this bill will make it to the floor and become an important stepping stone in immigration policy in New York,” Moya said in a statement of the Dream Fund bill.
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), a cosponsor of both the Dream Act and Dream Fund bills in the Republican Senate, also emphasized his support for the Dream Fund.
“The Dream Fund initiative Assembly Member Moya proposes would greatly expand the educational opportunities available to these young people,” Peralta said in a statement.
But for many of the illegal immigrants who would benefit from the Dream Act and their advocates, access to public education assistance is essential, as it’s the fight for more state and federal rights that is ultimately the goal.
“We need to move forward legislation that improves the lives of students in the State of New York,” said Natalia Aristizabal, a youth organizer for Make the Road, a pro-immigrant group with a Queens office. Aristizabal expressed frustration at the lack of change on the issue — the federal Dream Act, a version of which was first introduced in 2001, most recently came up for a vote last May. Aristizabal said all told, she has spent seven years fighting for the bill.
“It’s been very hard to continue to work so many years on this and see that it goes nowhere,” she said. Some members of Congress and other politicians “want to continue to pass laws to make life so miserable for immigrants.”
“New York could be an example for the rest of the country,” she added of passing the state Dream Act.
Only three states allow immigrant students access to public tuition assistance regardless of status: California, Texas and New Mexico, according to an October 2011 report by the National Immigration Law Center.
Gabriel Aldana, 24, a member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a Dream Act advocacy group largely made up of illegal students, said the organization has given up hope on a federal Dream Act passing in the foreseeable future.
Calling his own experience growing up undocumented as “damaging,” he said that despite the challenge of passing the Dream Act in the state Senate especially, his organization is hopeful. In addition to the Regents, Mayor Bloomberg, the State University of New York and the New School have all recently backed the bill publicly.
“We’ve garnered a lot of support,” Aldana said.