Immigrant college aid bill heads to Gov. Inslee’s desk

OLYMPIA — Students who aren’t legal residents but who grow up in Washington and graduate from its schools will be eligible for some state financial aid for college under key legislation approved by the House and sent to Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday evening.

Called the Dream Act by Democrats and the Real Hope Act by Senate Republicans, the bill opens the door for some 800 students who would be eligible for state need grants for college if they were citizens. Most were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents and stayed, attended school in Washington and graduated with good grades.

College students in the gallery erupted with applause when the gavel came down and Senate Bill 6523 passed the House on a 75-22 vote.

“These are the children that live next door. These are the children that play with our children and grandchildren,” said Rep. Sharon Santos, D-Seattle, urging legislators pass the bill and “give them the wings they are looking for, to fly.”

Opening college aid to those students who weren’t citizens but otherwise qualified for it was a top goal of Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee when the session began last year. The House passed a Dream Act last year, but it died in the Senate without coming to a vote; on the first day of this year’s session, the House passed the bill again and began calling for the Senate to take action.

The bill seemed stalled until late last month, when members of the predominantly Republican coalition that controls the Senate announced their own bill, which they called the Real Hope Act. It also allowed the students to qualify for aid, but also came up an extra $5 million for the account that pays for state need grants. It took the money to turn dreams into real hope, said Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

The Senate passed that bill on a fast track with all Democrats voting for it. Then it was the Majority Coalition’s turn to bait Democrats who control the House. If the legislation was so important, their leaders said, why hadn’t they passed the Senate bill? On Tuesday, House Democrats answered by bringing the bill to the floor just minutes after the deadline passed for moving their own bills out of the chamber.

They brought up the Senate bill, which most still called the Dream Act, and passed it without changing a word.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, questioned the math involved, saying the Legislature was adding to the pool of students eligible for aid without providing the money to back it up.

By most estimates, there are already 32,000 students who qualify for a need grant but can’t get one because the state money isn’t there. The $5 million isn’t set aside for the 800 students newly eligible to join that pool; it goes into the fund for everyone.

“Is this really the Real Hope Act? I have deep concerns that we’re dangling a promise out there that we don’t have the money to back up,” said Haler, who eventually voted for the bill.

Inslee called the bill “a landmark achievement” of the session and said he looks forward to signing it.


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