DREAM Act: Drop in the bucket or theft from citizens?

By Damian Ortellado | Staff Undocumented

After finishing her first semester at UC Berkeley $4,000 in debt, Gladys Castro realized that she had no choice.

Castro, an undocumented student who has spent more than half of her life in the United States, achieved good grades during her short time in Berkeley. But despite working throughout the fall to earn enough for tuition for her first semester at Cal, she dropped out after the spring, lest she acquire more debt she could not pay off.

But now that the California DREAM Act has been signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, everything could change for Castro and hundreds of students like her.

Although the bill, which allows undocumented students to receive financial aid from the state, constitutes only a minuscule fraction of the state budget, the impact it has on individuals is much larger.

While some laud the bill for the chance it gives undocumented students to pursue higher education with fewer financial barriers, others believe the bill is unfair to legal residents, regardless of cost.

With the bill firmly in place in state law, Castro now plans on going back to college to finish her undergraduate education. After applying for readmission, she is more confident in her financial standing this time around.

"It's been really stressful for me to try to get all the money back that I have to pay the university," she said. "(The bill) is just really gonna help me and help me get back to Cal."

The cost of DREAMing

The estimated total cost of the bill — up to $40 million, according to an analysis by the state Senate Committee on Appropriations — comprises only about 1 percent of the state's total $3.5 billion budget for college financial aid, in itself a tiny dent in the state's $127 billion budget for 2011.

Cal Grants awarded to eligible undocumented students will constitute $13 million of the bill's total price tag. The UC's portion of the $40 million will be about $4.6 million in institutional aid, the most likely source of which is fee revenue from student tuition.

Although allowing undocumented students to receive aid from the university would have an effect on legal residents receiving financial aid from the same funds, the impact will be minimal, said Kate Jeffery, UC Office of the President director of student financial support.

"We're talking about 400 to 450 students who would be newly eligible for aid at UC, and we currently have about 70,000 undergraduates who currently receive aid," she said. "It would make virtually no difference in the kinds of awards that students would receive because this 500-odd students that would be newly eligible is such a small percentage."

The cost to the California State University system would total approximately $7.6 million in institutional aid, according to the senate analysis.

Jeffery said the university has no projections on how much the bill might cost in the future, though the senate analysis of the bill pegged the ongoing cost of the act between $23 and $40 million a year.

The analysis also notes that while the bill would increase costs to the state by increasing the number of undocumented students in California's colleges, the additional costs would be offset by speeding up the time it takes undocumented students to get their degree by increasing their accessibility to grants.

Beyond dollars and cents

While undocumented students around the state celebrated the act the day it was signed, Assemblymember Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, immediately took to the Internet to express his dissatisfaction with the bill.

"Brown chose to fund illegals dreams over funding our schools, pub safety & veterans," Donnelly wrote in a Twitter post the same day Brown signed the bill.

Two days later, he filed papers to place a referendum on the ballot to repeal the DREAM Act. As California faces a projected $13 billion budget shortfall in 2012, Donnelly's campaign shows that some feel that the issue of state funding for illegal immigrants' educations goes beyond the actual dollars and cents of the bill.

A recent poll conducted by the University of Southern California found that 55 percent of voters oppose granting undocumented students state financial aid. The same poll found that 49 percent of the state's registered voters feel that the UC's and CSU's tuitions are unaffordable.

Phyllis Nemeth, the California state director of the Concerned Women For America — a conservative Christian public policy group — believes legal residents alone deserve the funds the act provides for undocumented students eligible for financial aid.

"If there's any money for scholarships, it should go for students who are here legally," she said. "California is in a bad financial situation, and any money for scholarships should be given to American students."

While the cost of the bill is relatively small, some public figures, as well as UC students, question the ethics of financing a group that is not obligated to contribute fully to a tax system that pays for state financial aid.

Assemblymember Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) said the bill is unfair to documented families who abide by the rules and pay taxes to the state for undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

"We're telling them all those efforts are for naught because (undocumented students) are getting to the front of the line for those resources when you are not," he said.

Shawn Lewis, president of the Berkeley College Republicans, said while he supports the first part of the California DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to receive private scholarships, he believes the second part of the act would not fare well in the long run.

"My real focus is on the sustainability of an infrastructure that depends on the public dollar where you have undocumented families who aren't putting in the same proportion into it as they are getting out of it," he said.

Lewis added that the bill also gives illegal immigrants the wrong incentive toward gaining citizenship and that the issue was one that needed national reform to find a solution.

"As long we increase incentives for them to remain undocumented we are on the wrong track toward getting them citizenship," he said.

Castro said she finds claims of unfairness to be insulting. A portion of the tuition undocumented students pay is given out as institutional financial aid — which undocumented students did not have access to until now.

"As the student, we're paying into some fund that we can't access (before the act's implementation)," she said.

The act and the economy

The issue of financial aid for illegal residents goes deeper than whether they deserve it or not, according to Carlos Amador, project coordinator for the UCLA DREAM Resource Center, a part of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. Studies show that the state will be in dire need of college-educated employees in the future.

A 2009 report published by the Public Policy Institute of California projects that by 2025, 41 percent of the state's jobs will require college degrees, but only 37 percent of workers in the state will have the necessary education. California will have about 1 million fewer college-educated workers than needed in the workforce in 2025, according to the institute.

"Providing education to anyone brings a contribution and investment to the state and the country," Amador said. "Giving the students a higher education prepares them with more skills for jobs in the future."

A report by the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA estimated that the national economy could benefit from approximately $2.2 trillion generated by undocumented students who attain bachelors, masters and doctorate-level degrees over the next 40 years.

Amador said the state could additionally benefit from the bill's enabling community college students to make the transition to a four-year program.

"I think now it makes perfect sense to make a relatively minimal investment in (undocumented) college students, particularly those who need aid," said UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson. "We're supporting those who are going to make something of themselves."

Jessica Rossoni of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.