Minn. Senate passes Dream Act for immigrant students

9:47 PM, May 1, 2013   |    comments
May Day immigration march
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Senate Wednesday passed the Dream Act, a bill that would allow some immigrants without documentation to qualify for in-state college tuition and financial aid.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, passed by a vote of 41 to 23 as first generation immigrants watched from the Senate gallery.

"I feel happy, excited!" said Lourdes de la Luz, a Washburn High School graduate from Minneapolis.

"There's no words that express how I feel right now!"

De la Luz was born in Mexico, but was brought to the United States by her mother when she was six months old. She's made many trips to the State Capitol in the last few years, meeting with lawmakers and trying to make the case for the tuition bill. 

"I've been living here my whole life, so I consider Minnesota my life and my home," she said.

After graduating, De la Luz took a year off so she could save money for school, and she is planning to attend Minneapolis Community and Technical College next year. Her goal is to transfer to the University of Minnesota to complete a four-year degree and work with youth.

"I want to work with students and give back something to the community that has helped me so much in my life."

Out-of-state tuition at the U of M is roughly 50 percent higher than in-state tuition. In the MNSCU system of state colleges and universities out-of-state students pay nearly double what their in-state counterparts pay.

"If you're a student from out of state and you move here and you live here for a year, you are eligible for in-state tuition and for financial aid," Pappas, a St. Paul Democrat explained.

"With these (immigrant)students, we're saying you had to have attended a Minnesota high school for three years and graduated, in order to qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid." 

Pappas and fellow supporters fought off an effort by some Republicans to strip the financial aid part out of the bill.

Sen. Eric Pratt, a Republican of Prior Lake, asserted that undocumented immigrant students should not get priority over other students when it come to financial aid.

"We already have legal residents in the state that don't qualify for aid that are struggling to make college tuition payments as well," Pratt said.

But Pappas said the bill merely evens the playing field for children who were brought here by their parents, people who either came to the U.S. with permission or overstayed temporary visas.

"Financial aid is so significant because even in-state of $8,000 to $12,000 a year is not attainable for these kids," Pappas remarked.

The vote coincided with a May Day immigration reform march that began in downtown St. Paul and ended on the south lawn of the State Capitol.

This last time the Dream Act has this much momentum in the Minnesota Legislature was in 2007. The measure appeared headed for passage that year as part of an omnibus education bill.

Legislators stripped the Dream Act language out of the bill that year, after receiving a letter from then-Governor Tim Pawlenty threatening to veto the entire education bill if contained the tuition language.

That sentiment still exists among some conservatives. Sen. Julianne Ortman, a Chanhassen Republican, argued on the Senate floor Wednesday that Minnesota should not go ahead with the tuition bill because immigration reform is federal issue.

But Sen. Patricia Torres Ray said the mood of the nation and Minnesota is changing, noting that the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce supports the 2013 version of the Dream Act.

She said the business community is beginning to look at the demographic reality that many skilled professionals in the Baby Boom generation are retiring, leaving holes in the state's labor force.

"Many states are going to be following this because we believe it's important to retain high-quality students," said Torres Ray.

"And that will become the labor force we want in the state of Minnesota in the years ahead."

There is no matching companion bill in the Minnesota House, but Pappas said she will offer it as an amendment during the House/Senate Higher Education conference committee.

If she's successful it would send the Dream Act to the full House for a vote, and to Gov. Mark Dayton who supports the idea.

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