Scholarship Bill Raises Big Immigration Questions
A proposal to provide college scholarships to the children of immigrants, even illegal immigrants, is forcing Illinois lawmakers to consider whether it's appropriate to lend a helping hand to people who are in the country improperly.
Many legislators express the need to make a bad situation better. Illegal immigrants are a fact of life, they say, and giving them a shot at an education through privately funded scholarships will be better for Illinois in the long run.
Some Republicans are taking heat for supporting the pending Illinois Dream Act, partly because constituents confuse it with federal legislation by the same name that would have given some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Other constituents simply believe the Illinois scholarship program is misguided and might deepen the lure of Illinois as a safe haven for illegal immigrants.
Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, said he's getting angry phone calls and emails.
"The facts are that there are immigrants here. And the facts are that it would be better if the immigrants here are properly educated," said Duffy, who supports the legislation.
Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel supports the bill, saying that that it would be consistent with Illinois values. He attended a rally Friday to support the Illinois Dream Act and said it would be fitting for Illinois to pass the legislation because Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin has worked to pass federal legislation of the same name. The federal proposal is different because it would give some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The Illinois Dream Act creates a panel to raise private money for scholarships to students with at least one immigrant parent, legal or illegal. The students themselves also could be in the country illegally.
To qualify for the money, students must already be enrolled in or planning to attend college, and they must have a federal taxpayer identification number proving they work and pay federal taxes.
The legislation, which is in the Illinois House after passing 45-11 in the Senate, also lets children of immigrants join state-run college savings programs. Only legal Illinois citizens may currently draw from the savings program. It also requires high school counselors to make students aware of the scholarship fund and savings program.
It has no impact on a person's immigration status.
William Gheen, president of American Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, believes illegal immigrants should not receive any sort of help getting into college.
Gheen noted federal law prohibits employing illegal immigrants but the Illinois measure would provide scholarships only if they have jobs. In other words, he said, the proposal is based on the idea of illegal activity.
Some, such as Sen. Sue Rezin, also argue students in the country might end up taking college spots that otherwise would go to citizens. She said that would mean spending tax dollars through public universities on illegal immigrants.
"A lot of legislation starts and just opens the door and becomes a state funded issue," the Morris Republican said.
Although the scholarship money would be raised from private sources, a government panel would oversee it -- which troubles critics who think the government should do nothing that might encourage illegal immigration.
Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, agreed Illinois is something of a haven for people in the country illegally. Many have lived here for years, following state laws, working hard, paying taxes and attending state schools.
"There is not going to be a scenario where those people are going to end up being deported," Syverson said. "So how do you address all those?"
He said the country needs immigration reform at the federal level and that immigrant communities must help authorities crack down on people who commit serious crimes. In the meantime, Syverson said, Illinois should help students save for college and get scholarships no matter what their immigration status.
This isn't the first time Illinois lawmakers have debated how far the state should go in accommodating people who are here illegally. In 2003 and again in 2007, they considered providing drivers licenses or an equivalent to people in the country illegally. The idea failed both times.
Several years ago, Illinois became one of the first states to offer in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. And Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn recently removed Illinois from the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities program, which is supposed to target serious criminals but has been used to deport people for misdemeanor offenses. Quinn's spokeswoman said he supports the legislation.
An advocacy group estimates the scholarship bill would aid 95,000 Illinois students. Some probably have stories similar to Cindy, a 22-year-old in her last semester at University of Chicago who did not want to use her last name for fear of deportation.
Her family left Mexico for Chicago when she was 3. Cindy's parents told her from the beginning to work hard, get scholarships and go to college.
Even with a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Cindy's illegal status limits her job options. Still, she believes providing scholarships regardless of immigration status will help everyone.
"This will create a population that deserves to be here and wants to give back to a country that we consider our home," Cindy said.
The 2010 U.S. Census found Illinois' white and black populations were basically flat while the Latino and Asian population jumped by 33 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
The sponsor of the Dream Act, Sen. Iris Martinez, said Illinois would be smart to make sure all those people have a chance to learn and succeed, no matter what their immigration status.
"I'm really sad that the other side doesn't understand that these children are brought here by no fault of their own," said Martinez, D-Chicago. "How can we not put aside that difference and be able to say that child should at least be able to go to college?