State Legislature approves immigrant financial aid bill

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) The state Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to a measure expanding college financial aid to include Washington students brought to the country illegally as children.

Senate Bill 6523 passed the House on a 75-22 bipartisan vote and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee, who strongly supports the measure. The bill is the first to pass both chambers of the Legislature this session, which ends March 13.

"While we've opened the doors of our colleges and universities to students from all walks of life, too many still face an insurmountable financial barrier," Inslee said in a written statement issued after the vote. "This bill ensures that the young men and women we've invested in at our high schools and who aspire to become productive American citizens will now have fair access to the financial support they need to turn their dreams into reality."

The Senate measure, called the "Real Hope Act," is nearly identical to a measure that passed out of the House last month and was called the Washington Dream Act. The measure expands state financial aid for college students in the country without legal status.

The measure requires students to have received a high school diploma or equivalent in Washington state and to have lived in the state for at least three years before getting aid.

The House version didn't identify a funding source, but the Senate proposal allocates $5 million through June 30, 2015, from the general fund to pay for the financial aid payments under the state need-grant program.

"A policy like this is good for the students, it's the right thing to do for young people, it's the right thing to do for our communities, and it's good for our economy," said Rep. Zack Hudgins, a Democrat from Tukwila who sponsored the House bill.

Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, said the bill was flawed.

"Right now, the taxpayers of the state are on the hook for the children of 6.6 million Washingtonians," he said. "If we pass this, they're on the hook for the education of the kids of 7 billion people in the world."

Proponents have said the average number of college students in Washington each year who can't provide proof of legal residency is about 550.

"I absolutely believe that this bill is good for my community, as it is for yours," said Republican Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger. "I can understand the concerns that have been shared by many, but at the end of the day, I think the biggest mistake would be to do nothing."

Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, an immigrant-rights group, said he was grateful for the bipartisan votes in both chambers.

"This is an emotional moment for so many young aspiring citizens, their families and friends," he said in a written statement.

Once the bill is signed into law, Washington will become the fourth state in the country to approve state financial aid for college students residing in the country illegally. California, Texas and New Mexico have passed similar legislation.
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