New York legislators pass DREAM Act

After years of stalled progress, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition assistance passed through New York’s legislature on Wednesday.

The historic move was another clear sign of policy shifts under the state Senate’s new Democratic majority, which has acted quickly in the past couple of weeks on the party’s signature policies.

The Jose Peralta DREAM Act — named in honor of the former New York City senator who died unexpectedly last year and long sponsored the bill — now awaits a signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has listed the bill as a legislative priority.

When the bill is signed, New York will become the seventh state to enact laws to extend in-state tuition assistance to undocumented students.

“There are so many New York students who are waiting for the day that we would allow them an avenue to afford something better,” Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said during a press conference before the vote. “That’s what this is about.”

The DREAM Act would allow undocumented students to apply for state financial assistance programs, such as tuition help and college savings programs, for New York State colleges or universities. It will also create a scholarship fund for undocumented students, known more commonly as DREAMers.

“Undocumented youth have traveled to Albany year after year, leading the fight to have an equal access to state financial aid to be able to fulfill their aspirations of attending college,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigration advocacy group, in a statement. “With the passage of the NY Dream Act, we are sending a clear message: we will protect our youth and their future.”

Republicans staunchly opposed the bill. They raised concerns about spending taxpayer dollars on undocumented New Yorkers, about the $27 million cost of extending tuition help, and questioned the logistics of how this new crop of students would be identified as eligible for aid.

“When we can take care of every American citizen who is here legally, who has played by the rules, then we can talk about those who are not,” said Sen. Robert Ortt, a Republican who represents Niagara and Orleans counties, on the Senate floor.

Wednesday was the eighth time the Democrat-controlled Assembly has passed the bill, and until this year, the legislation died annually in the formerly Republican-controlled Senate. The bill drew hours of debate and passionate speeches in both the Senate and the Assembly and has been a top Democratic priority for party leaders.

When the bill passed through the Assembly, advocates chanted in Spanish, “Si se puede,” which means “Yes, we can.” 

It’s tough to predict the impact on New York City, since officials don’t track immigration status, but lawmakers estimate that about 4,500 undocumented students graduate from New York high schools each year. Extending tuition assistance to a new crop of students would cost $27 million, lawmakers estimate.

“While we as New York state legislators don’t have power to grant citizenship, today we will ensure that for these fellow New Yorkers who grew up with us and went to school with us and live with us, will continue to have the same opportunities that we have,” said Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, one of the bill sponsors, during a press conference before the votes.

Undocumented students and advocates traveled to Albany to watch the historic vote. While speaking in support of the bill, Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, the statehouse’s first DREAMer, emotionally told some of their stories: Jesus, who attends John Jay College while working a 10-hour shift at a Manhattan restaurant to pay for college; Monica, a native Ecuadorian who did not qualify for DACA and works multiple jobs to pay for school and help her parents.

By contrast, Sen. Ortt, the Republican opponent of the bill, said his constituents, who are American citizens, “have the added bonus to know that not only do they have to struggle to pay their loans or their tuition, but also, they know their dollars are going to pay for illegal immigrants.”

The bill sets a list of requirements for students to become eligible for tuition assistance, such as having attended a New York high school for two or more years and graduated, and having applied to a New York state college or university. The bill will take effect 90 days after it is signed into law, and the scholarship fund will become active next year.