Curt Hagman

A new law that took effect Jan. 1 in California allows students who are not in the country legally access to a variety of state-funded college tuition financial aid.

Assistance such as community college fee waivers, Cal Grants and similar aid is now open to non-legal residents, with awards of up to $12,200 a year for low- and middle-income students.

To be eligible for the money, students must graduate from a California high school after attending for at least three years, and meet financial and academic standards.

Supporters of the law downplay its financial significance in this cash-strapped state, citing widely circulated statistics that less than 1 percent of students in the California State University, University of California and community college systems are undocumented. They also insist that the new law, part of the California Dream Act, won’t eat into the pool of college aid given annually to legal citizens.

However the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analysis Office reports that the law will likely cost Californians $65 million a year by 2016. Critics say the law rewards breaking the rules and is an insult to foreign students who enter the country legally.

“We should reward those who respect our process instead of creating new incentives for those who don’t,” Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly said in a statement to the Riverside-based Press-Enterprise, which reported that about 20,000 people – less than one percent of college students – are expected to apply for the state-funded Cal Grants.

But Donnelly told the newspaper the law will take away money from students who are U.S. citizens, and that it goes against the wishes of California voters, citing a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll which found 55 percent of voters opposed the law and 40 percent supported it.

The poll also showed a huge ethnic divide, with 79 percent of Latinos supporting the law, compared with 30 percent of white supporters, the Press-Enterprise notes.

The latest law granting undocumented students Cal Grants and similar aid joins a growing number of perks for illegal immigrants in California. They are already eligible for reduced in-state tuition at campuses statewide, as state law offers tuition breaks to any student who has attended a California high school for three years, regardless of their immigration status.

What’s more, as of Jan. 1, 2012, they were granted access to private college scholarships funneled through public universities.

State immigration advocates such as Luz Gallegos argue that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents.

“There’s so much potential for them,” she told the Press-Enterprise. “It’s not their fault their parents brought them here undocumented.”

Others see it differently.

Kristen Williamson, a spokeswoman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the Los Angeles Times the law is “a reckless use of taxpayer money.” And Republican Assemblyman Curt Hagman told the newspaper it “absolutely sends the wrong message. It says if you violate the law, it’s OK.”

Fix contributor Nicole Swinford is a student at Chapman University.

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