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Sat., Feb. 1, 2014

Editorial: Lawmakers foster hope with vote on student aid

Hope. Dream. Whatever the act is called, it was a nice reversal of fortune Friday when the state Senate passed legislation that would allow children brought into Washington illegally to be eligible for college financial aid.

The turnabout was surprising because after the House passed the Dream Act on the opening day of the session (Jan. 13), the initial response from Senate leadership was, in essence, “dream on.” Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chair of the Higher Education Committee, said at the time it would be an empty gesture to add the children of illegal immigrants to the pool of about 32,000 Washington students who qualify for but don’t receive the State Need Grant because it’s underfunded.

But on Thursday, the Senate Majority Coalition announced an idea to add $5 million to the State Need Grant and call their version of the same idea the Real Hope Act. For good measure, the Senate passed a companion bill that would grant Washington veterans who retire from the military immediate eligibility for in-state tuition. Currently, they must wait a year.

The $5 million in financial aid is tiny compared to the $140 million needed to eliminate the State Need Grant backlog, but the boost means the line shouldn’t get longer when the children of immigrants are added. The Senate bill passed overwhelmingly and will be sent to the House, which is expected to harmonize the two versions. The governor is eager to add his signature.

At a press conference on Thursday, Bailey said the issue was never about immigration. Perhaps not for her, but it was a sticking point for many legislators who felt the bill would turn the state into a magnet for illegal immigrants. The bill mitigates this because students would have to reside in the state for at least three years and meet other eligibility requirements. Besides, the chief attraction for illegal immigrants is work, not the uncertain prospect of partial college aid for their children.

The reality is that young children are brought here by their parents through no fault of their own. They attend public schools and culturally are Americans. Some don’t speak the language of their native countries and have no memory of their lives there.

Denying them equal opportunities to better themselves through higher education serves no rational purpose. In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill making them eligible for in-state tuition. This latest measure is the logical next step.

Also attending the Thursday press conference was Dulce Siguenza, a 19-year-old college student whose family moved to Seattle from Mexico eight years ago. Through tears, she told the story of how she attended the University of Washington for her freshman year, but had to transfer to a community college because of finances. She thanked lawmakers for the opportunity to reach her goals and said students like her would give back to the community.

It’s heartening to see this hope become more than a dream.

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