The measure aims to dovetail with the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides young immigrants who arrived in the United States as children a legal way to live in the country on renewable two-year stays, but it would also make students who don't apply for that program eligible.
To be eligible for the federal program, immigrants must prove they arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, must be 30 or younger, must have been living in the country at least five years, and must be in school, have graduated or served in the military. They cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
People who qualify for the deferred removal program can't apply for federal college financial aid.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Ed Murray's bill, dubbed the Washington Dream Act, would make these immigrants eligible for the State Need Grant. They already qualify for in-state tuition.
The measure's highest hurdle is getting the approval of Senate leader Rodney Tom and his Republican colleagues. A spokesman for the Senate coalition couldn't immediately say what leadership thought of the bill.
In 2003, Tom was one of several Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to make students who entered the country illegally eligible for in-state tuition.
Murray, a Democrat from Seattle, said he doesn't have any Republican co-sponsors for the bill but is optimistic that some will eventually sign on to the idea. He has already proposed a capital gains tax that would provide a source of revenue for the state's education system, and he said one of the areas that needs to be funded is the State Need Grant.
"The resources exist to fund the state need grant," Murray said.
Proponents say the average number of college students in Washington each year who can't provide proof of legal residency is about 550. They estimate that number would grow by about 20 or 30 percent if the financial aid measure is approved. Using those numbers, they estimate costs in the next biennium to be between $3.3 million and $3.5 million.
Ricardo Sanchez of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project said the students who would be eligible for financial aid are the children of immigrants who have helped Washington's economy, such as farm workers in the multi-billion agricultural sector. He said these families have contributed their share of taxes to the state's coffers.
Overall, higher education is one of the many sectors lawmakers are working to fund in the next budget.
The state is already predicting a $900 million deficit for the next biennium, and a Supreme Court ruling concerning money for the state's K-12 education system will force the Legislature to find an estimated $1 billion to invest in public schools during this session.
Recently, Washington's public university presidents offered to compromise with the Legislature over money, saying they will agree to freeze tuition for the next two years if the state infuses $225 million into their budgets.
Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.