A bill that would increase access to higher education for students who are undocumented immigrants sparked debate from both sides of the issue during a Senate committee hearing Thursday.
House Bill 1817 would extend the State Need Grant program – the state’s largest financial aid program – to undocumented graduates of Washington high schools. The proposal applies to students with “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival” status under the federal Dream Act. The bill cleared the House by a vote of 77-to-20 with the full support of Democrats and a split vote from Republicans.
Supporters of the legislation argue the students didn’t have a choice where they were born and should have the same opportunities as any other high school graduate in the state. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Zach Hudgins (D-Tukwila), said the state’s economy stands to benefit from the policy change.
“It’s a big deal for our economy because these are the kids with ties to Washington state,” he said. “These kids are going to be the ones that sell our apples and our pears and our airplanes and software to the world.”
A similar bill was introduced early in the session by Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray (D-Seattle), but it died in the Senate without receiving a hearing. On Thursday, a number of undocumented high school and college students attended the hearing, asking lawmakers to move the House version out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote.
“We undocumented students may have been born in another country, but because this is where we were raised and got our K-12 education, this is our home and we love this nation,” said Tania Santiago, a senior at the University of Washington.
Compounding the problem for the state’s colleges is the lack of funding for State Need Grant program, with an estimated 30,000 students waiting to receive aid. It’s unclear exactly how many undocumented students would immediately be affected by the legislation, but committee staff estimates the number is around 800.
Some who testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee on Thursday said the bill is unfair to students who are here legally and still waiting for assistance. They also argued the bill makes the state a magnet for illegal immigration.
“People say it wasn’t the child’s fault that they were brought here illegally. Their parents brought them here when they were young and they didn’t have a say in it. In many cases this is true, however it is the fault of the parents and if this bill is passed not only do the kids benefit but the parents do as well. This will just encourage more immigrants to break into our country illegally,” said Bob West of Yakima.
The committee did not take action on the bill Thursday.