Scholarships for illegal immigrants

Posted12/31/2012 5:00 AM

When it comes to how California handles illegal immigrants, the state is all over the map. Not unlike the rest of the country, the Golden State can't decide whether it wants to make life comfortable for the undocumented or make them so unhappy that it runs them off.

'Twas always thus. Consider my home state's history over the past few decades.

In the 1980s, Republican Sen. Pete Wilson of California -- at the behest of agribusiness -- drove support for the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986. The legislation granted amnesty to about 3 million illegal immigrants.

Then in the 1990s, when Wilson -- who had come home to serve as governor -- found himself with dismal approval ratings and a tough re-election battle, he drove support for Proposition 187, which California voters approved in 1994. The ballot initiative -- later struck down as unconstitutional -- denied illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born children access to schools, welfare and nonemergency health care.

Today, the tradition continues. And now, it's Democrats who are being inconsistent.

One minute, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is signing a bill to expand educational opportunity for undocumented youth by letting them compete for scholarships to attend public colleges and universities in the state. The next minute, Brown all but ensures that more of these students and their parents will get deported when he vetoes another bill aimed at reining in Secure Communities, a program the Obama administration uses to coerce local police into enforcing federal immigration law.

Now, in a recent development, the flagship institution in the University of California system -- UC Berkeley -- has announced that it is forming a $1 million scholarship fund for undocumented immigrant students. Believed to be the largest scholarship of its kind at any university in the country, it is being funded by a donation from a private foundation. When the Dreamers Fund is established in 2013, as many as 200 undocumented students from 20 countries will be eligible to apply. The awards are in the amount of $8,000. To qualify, students need at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

The new scholarship will come in handy. While getting into a college or university isn't usually a problem for many illegal immigrant students, paying the tuition can be. The undocumented are ineligible for federal grants or student loans. To address that problem, the California legislature passed a law last year declaring undocumented students eligible to receive private scholarships offered by state colleges and universities.

The scholarship takes its name from the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided a pathway to legal status and citizenship to those who attended college or joined the military. The Democratic-controlled Senate killed the bill in December 2010 when five Democrats voted against cloture. Otherwise, in the 2012 elections, Democrats might have been slapped with the label of being weak on illegal immigration.

While some Californians grumble about offering scholarships to illegal immigrants, there is really nothing wrong with it. There is a legitimate debate to be had over whether illegal immigrants should have access to public funds. Those who feel strongly that illegal immigration is destroying California certainly don't want to see their tax dollars go to educate young people who shouldn't be here in the first place.

I don't agree with that point of view, but I understand it. We all should. Yet, this is private money, and the University of California is free to use it however specified by the donors. Case closed.

Besides, there's an added benefit. In a larger sense, the Dreamers Fund is an honest acknowledgment by the University of California of a couple of things that most people don't want to admit. First, that many undocumented students are hardworking and productive, and they deserve financial support from private individuals. And second, that Californians owe a debt to the estimated 3 million undocumented residents who call the state home. Despite what many people think, these immigrants pay taxes (sales, municipal, property). And they help keep the state's economy humming along by maintaining the profit margins for the multitude of businesses -- farms, ranches, landscaping companies, construction firms, meat-processing factories, hotels, restaurants, etc. -- that hire them and then turn around and pay state taxes as well.

Thank you, University of California. Honesty is hard to come by in just about any aspect of the immigration debate, and it is much appreciated.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

2012 Washington Post Writers Group

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