February 12, 2009 in City

Bill aids immigrant students

It seeks broader eligibility for state grants
Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – Emotions ran high Wednesday as state lawmakers discussed allowing illegal immigrant students – many of them brought to this country as young children – to qualify for millions of dollars in state college grants.

“As I look into their eyes and their hope for the future, I say let’s not draw a line around them,” said Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, who proposed House Bill 1706.

The proposal faces heated objections, however, from residents unhappy about illegal immigration.

“Please turn off the bird feeder,” said Yakima Valley resident Robert West. “The pie is only so big. … I wonder what you’re going to tell those students who are U.S. students: ‘I’m sorry, but we gave your money to others who are here illegally.’ ”

One after another Wednesday, high school and college students, some without immigration papers, urged lawmakers to expand eligibility for “need grants.” The grants are available to state residents whose families live on 70 percent or less of median income. Last year, some 72,000 students qualified for $182 million in help.

“We’re here, and we’re ready to do something for this country. We love this country,” said Luis Ortega, a university student who said he’s maintaining a 3.5 grade point average.

“We are not asking for a free pass,” he said. “I believe in hard work. All I’m asking for is the opportunity to share the American dream.”

The students described watching their parents toiling to improve their families’ lives. College is the ticket to a better future, they said.

“These are the doctors, the engineers, the teachers,” one woman told lawmakers, indicating rows of Hispanic students. “I hope that you will give this high consideration.”

Every student, regardless of immigration status, qualifies for education in the state’s K-12 schools. And six years ago, lawmakers changed a law that forced Washington students without immigration papers to pay much higher nonresident tuition.

Ricardo Sanchez, chairman of the Latino/Latina Educational Achievement Project, said it’s unfair to penalize students for decisions their parents made. And the students and families, he points out, pay taxes.

“These are bright, intelligent people who will contribute to this country in many ways,” he said. “We’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in them throughout their K-12 years. Some of these kids came here when they were 2 years old. It’s a stretch for any civil person to say they’re lawbreakers.”

Sanchez said many students are hoping Congress approves the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrants who came to the country as children a chance to become legal permanent residents. They could eventually earn citizenship if they get a college degree or serve in the military.

In Olympia on Wednesday, opponents of Quall’s bill were adamant that any state grants should go to Americans. Giving them to people without citizenship or legal residency would “act like a magnet,” said Hal Washburn, an Olalla man. “The word has gotten out long ago: everything is free.”

“I have a dream also,” said Renton’s Judy Tabak. “I have a dream that we have laws in our country and that everybody has to obey them. … I guess this country doesn’t recognize an invasion, but that’s what we’ve got going on here.”

Deb Wallace, chairwoman of the House committee that held Wednesday’s hearing, said afterward that she’s not sure whether the bill will get out of committee.

“Frankly, right now I’m not quite sure what to do with it,” she said. She wants to discuss it with other lawmakers.

She said it’s clearly a controversial proposal, but she feels for the students.

“They’re almost in limbo,” she said, “by no choice of their own.”

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