California Dream Act Allows Illegal Immigrants Access to Education

The California DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act) which was introduced in the U.S. Congress more than a decade ago is now enacted into law. The DREAM Act was brought forward by Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), was introduced as two bills earlier this year: AB 130 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown on July 25, 2011 allows undocumented students to apply for non-state-funded scholarships. AB 131, which was signed by the governor on October 9, 2011, allows undocumented students to apply for public financial aid to attend California public colleges and universities. The Act will be implemented in January 2013.

Beginning in 2013, illegal immigrants accepted by state universities may receive assistance from Cal-Grants, a public program that last year provided aid to more than 370,000 low-income students. The new law also makes students who are not legally in the country eligible for institutional grants while attending the University of California and California State University systems. And it permits them to obtain fee waivers in the community college system.

In order to benefit from the state-funded scholarships, undocumented students must meet the following requirements:

  • Graduate from a California high school after attending school in California for at least three years;
  • Affirm that they are in the process of applying to legalize their immigration status, or sign an affidavit stating that they will apply to legalize their status as soon as they are eligible to do so; and
  • Demonstrate financial need and meet academic standards.

With over 2.5 million unauthorized residents, California is home to many more undocumented immigrants than any other state in the country. With undocumented immigrants making up 6.8% of the state’s overall population, California will undoubtedly have the largest number of potential DREAM Act beneficiaries in the U.S. The California Department of Finance estimates that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants as a result of AB 131, at a cost of $14.5 million.

The Dream Act is not the first law that was enacted by the California legislature giving equal opportunities to undocumented students. The AB540 which was enacted in 2001 allows undocumented students to pay only the “in-state” tuition fees as the undocumented student attended a U.S. high school for more than three years. In 2001, California passed Assembly Bill 540 (A.B. 540), which allows undocumented students who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. Students may currently benefit from A.B. 540 if they attend a California high school for at least three years; graduate from a California high school or equivalent; enroll in a California public college or university; and sign an affidavit stating that they have either filed, or plan to file when eligible, an application to legalize their immigration status.

AB 540 has been subject of a contested litigation in court and reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It was attacked as being discriminatory and favoring illegal immigrants over out-of-state residents who study higher education in California. On June 6, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the challenge to this AB540 allowing the undocumented students to reap the benefit of reduced tuition. It is anticipated that The California DREAM act will face similar attacks and be subject to litigation. However, the California Dream Act is just one critical component of a larger solution to address the long-term plight of undocumented students. The question remains whether the California DREAM act is a step towards to providing United States citizenship to undocumented college students.

Sejal Friday is Senior Counsel at
Gordon & Rees LLP in San Diego; 619-696-6700


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