Tears stained Elena Calderon’s cheeks Thursday as she stepped up to speak at Eastern Washington University during a student-organized rally in support of immigrants’ right to compete for state financial aid.
“I’m an undocumented student,” the emotional 23-year-old said. “It’s hard to come out and say that. I’m always afraid I’m putting myself and my family at risk.”
The graduate student, grateful for the opportunity to pursue the American dream, spoke to nearly 100 Eastern Washington University students, faculty and community leaders to encourage state lawmakers to pass the DREAM Act, which despite sharing a name with federal legislation only pertains to offering state scholarships to undocumented students.
Washington’s proposed bill would allow students who immigrated to America, graduated from Washington high schools, speak English and are accepted to state colleges to compete for the same state financial aid as other students. Currently, undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid or state awards.
Rallies have been held nationwide to draw attention to the controversial issue. Opponents resent state money going to students who came to the United States illegally, and some say it will encourage illegal immigration.
“Washington is a sales-tax-based economy, so every time they buy something they are paying taxes,” said Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane. “I don’t think that some people are going to come here because they believe that at the end of the pipeline there’s going to be some financial aid dollars to go to college.”
Controversy stirred most strongly when the federal government considered its own DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act in 2009. It offered a path to permanent residency to immigrants who earned a two- or four-year degree or spent at least two years in the military. The bill failed to pass the Senate in 2010.
Several states have independently passed bills with the same title to give undocumented youth money for college, including California, Texas and Minnesota.
Riccelli argued undocumented students working toward citizenship are “among our best and our brightest.”
Calderon came to America with her parents 20 years ago. She’s navigated her way through college by obtaining scholarships.
She earned her bachelor’s of science degree in community health with a 3.7 GPA last year. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
“The Dream Act gives folks who we have spent thousands of dollars educating in our K-12 system a chance to go to college,” Riccelli said. “I know there are a lot of strong opinions on this, but I think we need to do what’s right.”
Planners had their reasons for the time and place of the rally: The Legislature reconvenes on Monday. The college’s president, Rodolfo Arevalo, is the son of immigrant farmworkers. The university also boasts nearly 30 percent diversity – i.e., nonwhite students.
Riccelli and Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who spoke at the rally, are hopeful a Dream Act bill can be passed during the next legislative session. The bill passed the House with a 77-20 vote last year but never made it to a vote in the Senate.
“I think it’s the right thing to do for the kids,” Hudgins said. “Treating everyone who graduates from Washington high schools the same is the right thing to do. It’s also the right thing to do for our economy. These kids have been educated here. We should keep them here.”