About 120,000 California college students, including 8,500 in Orange County, may soon lose millions of dollars in federal grants if a U.S. Senate proposal that would sharply reduce government higher education aid for legal immigrants becomes law.
In response to the nationwide clamor for welfare reform, the House and the Senate have each passed proposals that would overhaul the public assistance system. The proposals classify a host of benefits to immigrants as welfare.
In a key difference, the Senate version would eliminate Pell grants and other federal financial aid to students who are legal immigrants, but a House version would maintain the funding. A Senate-House conference committee is expected to begin debating the issue before the July 4 congressional recess.
In Orange County, passage of the Senate version would mean that 2,750 UC Irvine students would lose an estimated $14 million, while some 5,800 students attending Cal State Fullerton and three local community colleges would lose at least $8.2 million, according to the latest figures compiled by the state’s campuses.
“This is very disturbing legislation,” said UCI Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez. “This is contrary to the spirit of this country. The immigrants come here with the blessing of the United States and now they are potentially being excluded from higher education.”
At UCI, which has one of the highest proportions of legal immigrant students among UC campuses, students are outraged by the Senate proposal, according to Phat X. Chiem, editor of the campus student newspaper. Chiem, 22, who fled Vietnam in 1979 and received his U.S. citizenship in 1994, said that without federal aid he probably would have been forced to drop out of school.
“It would be deplorable to get rid of educational aid,” said Chiem, who graduates Saturday. “Immigrants know how important education is in America and California, and sometimes without help from the government, they may not be able to get it.”
Under the Senate version, California students would lose $270 million in financial aid, more than in any other state. In California, about 370,000 students--roughly one-third of them legal immigrants--receive Pell grants, according a report from the General Accounting Office.
The Pell grant program, designed to help the neediest students afford college with a maximum award of $2,340 per year, is not the only area that could be affected. Legal immigrants could also be limited in their ability to obtain subsidized Stafford loans, upon which the federal government pays interest while students are in school.
State and local educators are already lobbying members of the conference committee preparing a final version of the bill, which is called the Immigration in the National Interest Act and is sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).
Educators are urging lawmakers to view financial aid as an investment in the nation’s future rather than a drain on revenue with limited return. Immigrants who enroll in higher education are less likely to need government assistance after graduation, and indeed are more likely to land good jobs, educators say.
“Without student financial aid, most [legal immigrant students] will be unable to continue attending college, and the positive cycle of economic development and social integration, essential to the health of the state, will be broken,” wrote Thomas Nussbaum, acting chancellor of the California Community Colleges, in a June 4 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Feinstein is one of nine Senate members who have been named to the conference committee. Congressional leaders are uncertain when House members will be appointed to the committee.
A Feinstein spokeswoman said the senator agrees with Lamar, who argues that an immigrant’s sponsor--not taxpayers--should be responsible for supplying financial aid to legal immigrants. (Before entering the U.S., immigrants must have an American sponsor them.)
“If you bring someone in this country, you have to cover their expenses,” Feinstein spokeswoman Susan Kennedy said. “People shouldn’t come here expecting to be on welfare and public benefits.”
Kennedy stressed that higher education aid is not alone in vulnerability to cuts, saying that all federal programs are undergoing “severe scrutiny.”
Also, under the Senate version, legal immigrants who use educational assistance risk deportation.
Last year, the House backed off the proposed ban on college aid to legal immigrants after widespread protests from campuses across the nation. But educators were unable to convince the House to drop a requirement in its current version that calls for a legal immigrant to secure an American co-signer for a governmental education loan.
Under current law, legal immigrants can obtain the government-guaranteed loans for school without a co-signer.