Aid for Californians or Criminals?

    Most Americans would agree that children should only be held accountable for their own decisions, and not those of their parents. Moreover, most Americans would agree that no one should reap the benefits of an American citizenship without shouldering their fair share of the burdens that come along with it. Right?

    Richard Pham/Guardian

    SB 160, a controversial bill by State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) that would permit some illegal immigrants to apply for certain financial aid programs, is a compromise that fits within both of these parameters.

    The bill would make it possible for students admitted to California colleges under AB 540 to apply for financial aid that does not require the filing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. AB 540, passed by the state legislature in 2001, modified the education code to permit undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at California universities — but only under certain circumstances. And those restrictions are key to the fairness of this bill.

    First, because SB 160 affects only those students accepted under AB 540, it does not simply dole financial aid to anyone who can beg, borrow or steal their way across the California state line. (Nice try, Oregonians.) To qualify for in-state tuition under AB 540, a student must have attended a California high school for at least three years, either graduated or obtained the equivalent GED and then enrolled at an accredited university. Only capable, motivated students who have been living in the state for several years — and probably more — will be able to take advantage of the expanded access to financial aid.

    Second, AB 540 stipulates that students without lawful immigration status must file an affidavit stating that they have either filed an application to legalize their status, or that they will file one as soon as they become eligible. Accordingly, while SB 160 would allow illegal immigrants to access benefits, a condition of those benefits is that undocumented students become naturalized citizens. The bill is, in effect, a powerful incentive to naturalize.

    Unfortunately, the most strident critics of SB 160 often overlook these two caveats. Somewhat mystifyingly, the most passionate supporters of the bill usually don’t bother to mention the conditions, either. An unfortunate consequence of this parallel lack of information is that the debate typically devolves into a verbal fistfight, with angry pro-immigration humanists on one side and equally angry anti-immigration protectionists on the other.

    But the vitriol from both sides obscures those two points on which most Americans probably agree: Children should not be responsible for the choices of their parents, and no one should take advantage of American citizenship without paying their fair share of the bargain.

    By permitting undocumented children to compete for financial aid dollars, we give them the same opportunities as the classmates they have spent years learning beside — regardless of how their parents came into the country. But most importantly, by offering a chance at financial aid only on condition of eventual American citizenship, we ensure that anyone taking advantage of the program is drawn into the income tax-paying fold.

    A lack of similar provisions in the driver license bill, which Cedillo has been so anxious to pass for the last few years, is one of the main reasons it has repeatedly failed. (The latest version, SB 1162, finally requires an affidavit of intent to apply for citizenship as a prerequisite for obtaining a license.)

    Without naming names, several Democratic politicians have tried to sell SB 160 by invoking the plight of undocumented children, while at the same time arguing that since these kids have been in California schools for years — free of cost to them and their parents, mind you — they are essentially de facto American residents. While this nonsensical argument might earn a few votes from sympathetic constituents, it does nothing to win over the voters who actually pay for the state’s education system. How bad should Californians feel for students who are getting a free ride in the K-12 school system?

    But the political wrangling of the SB 160’s proponents does not make it a bad piece of legislation. With the conditions on financial aid clearly stated, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should sign the bill on his desk into law before the end of the month.

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