Nanette Asimov,Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writers
Saturday, October 8, 2011

(10-08) 13:53 PDT Sacramento — For the first time, thousands of California students who are in the country illegally will be eligible to receive financial aid to attend any public college in the state at taxpayer expense, beginning in 2013, as Gov. Jerry Brown today signed into law AB131, known as the California Dream Act.

The University of California once subsidized tuition for undocumented students, but that benefit ended in 1996 with the passage of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That law required states to develop guidelines if they wanted to offer tuition help to undocumented students, but few states did.

Texas did. And now, so has California.

The law signed by the governor makes it legal for public aid to flow to students planning to attend any public campus in California. The UC regents, who govern UC independently from the Legislature, will have to vote separately but are likely to support the new law.

Opponents favoring stricter immigration laws are warning that they will try to block the law through a referendum on next year’s ballot.

But advocates for the rights of undocumented students cheered wildly at the news.

The California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants, calculates that 5,462 undocumented students will be eligible for state aid in the 2013-14 school year, at a cost of slightly more than $13 million.

“We have consistently supported this bill,” said Executive Director Diana Fuentes-Michel. “The commission believes that the investment that California will make in these students will have a positive benefit not only economically, but socially to our society.”

The cost to taxpayers will actually be higher than $13 million in any given year because many undocumented students will also be eligible for a fee waiver at community colleges aimed at very low-income students, and others will qualify for institutional aid provided by CSU and UC.

At UC, that could amount to $4 million or $5 million a year, the university’s legislative director, Nadia Leal-Carrillo, wrote in a letter to the governor last month urging him to pass the bill.

Opponents say the Dream Act will be nothing short of a nightmare for overburdened taxpayers.

“Tuition rates have been going up, the universities have budget cuts of $1.2 billion and there are lotteries for classes – but if someone is here illegally, we roll out the red carpet,” said Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks (San Bernardino County), who serves as vice chairman of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.

Donnelly said opponents are wary about suing to block the new law because California courts have favored undocumented students, upholding their right to pay in-state tuition rates, for example.

But letting voters decide might be different, Donnelly said.

“It would go down in flames,” said the lawmaker, who has traveled up and down the state meeting with many people – “not just (with) Tea Party or church groups, but mixed crowds” who don’t like the idea of paying college support for undocumented students.

Despite their lack of legal paperwork, the students – most of whom are now in high school – won’t be hiding in the shadows. Already, such students are required to come forward and sign an affidavit saying they are in the process of requesting legal status if they want to pay the lower in-state tuition rate at public universities.

Like other Cal Grant applicants, those without residency documents will have to maintain at least a B average in high school if applying to California State University or UC, or a C average if aiming for community college.

The heads of California’s three public university systems and many campus leaders have expressed strong support for the law authored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau used a five-minute audience with President Obama to urge support for a federal version of the Dream Act pending before Congress.

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