Following through on a campaign promise, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law Monday easing access to privately funded financial aid for undocumented college students. He also signaled that he was likely to back a more controversial measure allowing those students to seek state-funded tuition aid in the future.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), author of the private financial aid measure, described it as an important but incremental step toward expanding opportunities for deserving students who were brought to the U.S. illegally through no choice of their own. Cedillo is pressing ahead with a more expansive measure that would make certain undocumented students eligible for the state's Cal Grants and other forms of state tuition aid.
Brown said he was "positively inclined" to back that bill but would not make a decision until it crosses his desk.
"I'm committed to expanding opportunity wherever I can find it, and certainly these kinds of bills promote a goal of a more inclusive California and a more educated California," Brown told reporters after the bill-signing ceremony Monday.
For Brown, signing Cedillo's bill was a gesture of goodwill toward Latino voters, who helped elect him in large numbers last fall. Legislation providing education funding to undocumented students has been a top priority for many Latino groups, which have found many of their efforts thwarted so far at the federal level. Last year proponents failed to marshal enough votes in the U.S. Senate to ensure passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. before age 16 if they attended a college or served in the military.
Brown's position on the California Dream Act was being closely monitored after he angered some prominent Latino leaders by vetoing a bill last month that would have made it easier for farmworkers to organize. Though Brown noted in his veto message that he signed legislation helping farm workers unionize during his first stint as governor in the mid-1970s, his veto was sharply criticized by the United Farm Workers, which counted the bill among their top priorities.
But several analysts who study Latino politics said the California Dream Act was far more important symbolically to many in the Latino community. Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, said the bill was viewed by many as a measure of social acceptance of Latinos because it would increase opportunity for the best and brightest among the undocumented.
The California Dream Act has drawn strong support across the Latino community, said Jaime A. Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs.
"If [Brown] was looking at the balance sheet, understanding politically that he needed to sign one of these measures, it was not going to be competitive," Regalado said. "It's seen as a civil rights issue in the Latino community, especially for youth. The farmworkers' struggle is not necessarily seen as what it once was. This is an issue of the now, an issue of the moment, part of the Latino agenda and part of the future."
But opponents of the legislation say it will diminish opportunities for U.S. students.
"Obviously it falls into a different realm when the money is coming out of private pockets than it does when it's coming out of taxpayers' pockets," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates halting illegal immigration, "but nevertheless, foundations and other institutions that get tax exemptions should not be promoting policies that encourage people to remain illegally in the United States."
During a signing ceremony at Los Angeles City College, Brown largely brushed over the thorny politics of illegal immigration and sought to frame the legislation as part of the struggle to maintain education funding during California's budget crisis.
"The debate is very clear: shrivel public service, shrink back, retrench, retreat from higher education, from schools, from the investment in people; or make the investment," Brown said. "This is one piece of a very important mosaic, which is a California that works for everyone."
Brown used the issue last year against his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, during a Fresno debate.
After an undocumented student had asked the candidates to explain their position on such legislation, Brown said that he backed the proposal and that Whitman wanted to kick undocumented students out of college, adding "that is wrong morally and humanly."