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Dream Act a reality in the state

Students celebrate with legislators after the passing of the Real Hope Act. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, greets students from the Latino Educational Achievement Project on Tuesday. - Courtesy photo/Elliot Suhr
Students celebrate with legislators after the passing of the Real Hope Act. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, greets students from the Latino Educational Achievement Project on Tuesday.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/Elliot Suhr

By Elliot Suhr
WNPA News Service

Students who arrived in the United States illegally as children will soon be eligible to apply for college financial aid.

On Tuesday evening, Senate Bill 6523 passed the House and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has stated his support for the bill.

The Dream Act is a piece of federal legislation that would legalize the status of several million undocumented youth immigrants. Washington joins three other states—California, New Mexico and Texas—in enacting a version of the Dream Act and extending state need-grants to students who arrived illegally in the United States as children. It is the first bill to pass both chambers this session.

"It means the world to me," said 19-year-old Dulce Siguenza. She arrived in Washington from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 7 years old. She attends South Seattle Community College, but she dreamed of being able to go to the University of Washington.

"This opens an opportunity for me to actually be able to do that," Siguenza said.

The measure passed the House on Tuesday with a 75-22 bipartisan vote. "When we work together, when we dream together, we can do great things together for our state," said Rep. Zach Hudgins, D-Renton, chief House sponsor.

"This is about keeping our best and brightest here in Washington, and giving everybody a shot at the American Dream," Hudgins said.

The bill requires students to have lived in the state for at least three years and to have received a high school diploma in Washington state before receiving aid.

Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, said the bill was flawed and could hurt the middle class.

"Right now, the taxpayers in this state are on the hook for paying for the education of 6.6 million Washingtonians. If we pass this, they're on the hook for the kids of 7 billion people in the world," Hargrove said.

The Real Hope Act is nearly identical to the Washington Dream Act, which passed out of the House with a 71-23 vote on the first day of the legislative session.

While the House bill doesn't identify a funding source, the Senate version appropriates $5 million from the general fund to pay for the financial-aid disbursements under the state need-grant program.

Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, voted in favor of the measure but voiced his concerns on the House floor.

He said the appropriations made under this bill wouldn't necessarily reach the intended recipients. The $5 million would be pooled into the general fund for the state need-grant program.

"It's not guaranteed to go to them," Haler said. "We're dangling a promise out there, but we don't have the money to give to these students."

During the 2012-2013 academic year, $303 million was dedicated to the state need-grant program, which meant funding for 74,000 low-income recipients. However, more than 30,000 eligible students were unserved for one or more academic terms.

The state need-grant program received $605 million for the 2013-2015 budget. The Latino Educational Achievement Program estimated around 1,000 to 1,500 students would be eligible for funding under the Real Hope Act.

Another version of the bill passed the state House last year; however, it was blocked in committee by Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Bailey said the bill didn't address more than 30,000 students who qualified, but couldn't receive state need-grants due to a lack of funding. "Adding more to that pool of students, in my opinion, was a false promise," she said.

When it was passed in the House earlier this year, Republican leaders said that the bill was not a high priority.

In an unexpected reversal, Senate Republicans introduced Senate Bill 6523—renamed the Real Hope Act—with Bailey as one of the chief sponsors.

"When we put money where our words are, it really makes a huge difference," Bailey said.

The bill passed 35-10 with bipartisan support in the Senate on Jan. 31, bringing closure to a near six-year effort by the Democratic party to pass a version of the Dream Act.

As the bill made its final passage through the House on Tuesday, Hudgins said: "A policy like this is good for the students, it's the right thing to do for young people, it's the right thing to do for our communities and it's good for our economy."

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