Bill would open college aid to undocumented students

Hartford — Casting their actions as a statement against the anti-immigrant agenda of President Donald Trump, a group of lawmakers joined undocumented immigrant college students in calling for passage of a bill that would provide the students access to a pool of college financial aid funds.

“We call on you to reaffirm our state’s commitment to our state as a safe space for all immigrant students,” Jose Diaz of New Britain, an undocumented student at Central Connecticut State University who immigrated from Mexico when he was 10 years old, said during a news conference at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday.

Diaz led a procession of undocumented students, state legislators and others, including John Brady, executive vice president of AFT Connecticut and a registered nurse at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, in advocating for passage of the “Afford to Dream” bill. 

"There are dreamers out there who could be nurses and teachers," Brady said.

The measure has failed to win approval in three previous sessions of the General Assembly, but, supporters contend, has taken on a new urgency as a symbol of opposition to Trump’s immigration crackdown.

The bill would give state colleges and universities discretion to provide financial aid to undocumented students from a pool of funds that all students contribute to through their tuition. Currently about 15 percent of tuition payments go into the fund, but only citizens and legal immigrants can receive assistance from it, said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education and Employment Committee. No additional tax dollars would be spent to open the fund to undocumented students, she said.

“This is a part of our population that grows our economy,” Bye said. “This matters to improving our workforce.”

Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, who founded Higher Edge, a nonprofit that helps low-income and first-generation immigrant students into and through college, said barring undocumented students from the financial aid fund is “one of the most unfair and egregious policies we have,” because they pay into the fund through their tuition. Soto is also a member of the higher education committee.

Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chairman of the committee, said Connecticut is “bleeding its young population” and needs to open its doors to undocumented students.

“We need to revitalize our state, and part of that is treating our immigrant community with respect and dignity,” he said.

But the Republican co-chairman of the committee, Sen. Art Linares of Westbrook, said he opposes the “Afford to Dream” bill.

Opening the financial aid fund up to undocumented students, he said, would mean less aid would be available to citizens and immigrants who came to this country legally.

“It is a finite pool,” he said.

In addition, he said, the state risks losing federal dollars if its immigration policies are at odds with those of the Trump administration. In an executive order Wednesday, Trump vowed to strip federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities that do not enforce immigration laws.

“I have serious concerns that this bill runs the risk of losing federal funding,” Linares said.

The bill, however, has the support of Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, who joined the presidents of 17 Connecticut colleges and 600 college presidents nationwide in a recent statement supporting continuation of Obama administration policies that provide amnesty for undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.

The bill in the legislature, he said in a statement, would advance the mission of the state's colleges to provide “affordable, accessible higher education for all students” and would improve Connecticut’s economic competitiveness.

“I want you to know without hesitation that our campuses will continue to welcome all students,” Ojakian said. “We will continue to unequivocally advocate for our undocumented students and provide whatever legal or other services are available during this uncertain time, and together we will figure out a way forward.”

Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, attended the news conference to demonstrate her support for the bill.

“It was very inspirational to hear what the students had to say,” she said after the presentation.

Among them was Gabriela Valdiglesias of West Hartford, who came to this country from Peru 16 years ago and is now a senior at Hall High School in Hartford. The fourth youngest of five children, she said the struggle of keeping up with tuition for community college has forced her three older siblings to take several semesters off. Her father works as a house painter and her mother works a minimum-wage job.

“As a senior with five months left in high school, I’m worried,” she said. “Getting a higher education should not be a privilege, it should be a basic human right.”

University of Connecticut student Luna Romani of Wethersfield was born in Peru but has been in this country since she was 3 years old.

“I’m a proud Husky and I’m also undocumented,” she said. “But I grew up in Connecticut. I’m a student who wants to succeed in this country I call home.”

Connecticut Students for a Dream, the organization that sponsored the event Thursday, will join U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in another news conference at the Legislative Office Building on Friday to oppose Trump's immigration agenda. Blumenthal will be joined at the event by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, representatives of immigrant advocacy organizations, the AFL-CIO, Hispanic and Islamic groups and Syrian refugees, among others.

j.benson@theday.com

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