ALBANY – In a surprise move, the State Senate on Monday evening permitted a vote on a bill that would give state financial aid for children of illegal immigrants to attend college in New York, but the measure was defeated by Republicans who, in an election year, called it an inappropriate bailout at a time when college education is increasingly unaffordable for citizens.
The legislation already passed the Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had pledged to sign it into law had it passed. It lost 30-29 in the first time Senate Republicans permitted a floor vote on the measure.
“This is an opportunity to do the right thing. This is about improving our pool of children who want to improve themselves,” said Sen. Jose Peralta, a Queens Democrat and sponsor of the bill.
“These children have come here by no fault of their own,” Peralta said.
But Republicans, only two of whom spoke on the floor during the debate, voted solidly against the plan. Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who is facing a likely GOP primary battle this fall in his re-election campaign, said it is unfair to give tuition breaks to illegal immigrants.
“I simply cannot vote for this legislation because it’s giving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to pay tuition for illegal immigrants when so many legal families are struggling to pay for the high cost of colleges right now,” Grisanti said. He noted that 76 percent of college students in New York now do not qualify for the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP, the main college financial aid program the bill would have opened up for children of illegal immigrants.
“It has nothing to do with my grandparents,” Grisanti said of his relatives who he said came legally to the United States. “It has to do with legal residents being taken care of first.”
Grisanti’s office, within 10 minutes of the vote, was already emailing around video of the senator’s floor remarks to reporters back in his Buffalo-area district.
Senate Republicans from Western New York voted no, while Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, voted yes.
The measure would have opened up state financial aid – from the Tuition Assistance Program to the 529 savings program – to students whose parents illegally came to the United States. To qualify, students would also have had to show they have taken the legal steps to becoming U.S. citizens.
The political dimensions of the Senate Republicans permitting the measure to come to the floor are many, and the measure popped up Monday out of nowhere at a time when Democrats and Republicans are negotiating key provisions of the soon-to-be-adopted state budget.
Why did the bill suddenly come to a vote Monday? A host of possible reasons emerged, but most seemed to center around the political protections of Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who is co-leader of the Senate in charge of the chamber with a coalition of Republicans.
The bill has passed for years in the Assembly, but been killed in the Senate. With the Senate led by a coalition of Republicans and several of Klein’s breakaway Democrats, the regular Democratic conference of the Senate, which is in the minority, has been raising political pressure to get the matter included in the state budget talks.
Klein has been taking a verbal beating from some Democrats for not pushing the Dream Act into law or at least to a floor vote. The Senate budget resolution passed last week – and signed off on by Klein –was silent on the Dream Act, while the Assembly included $25 million to get the program rolling this year. Lawmakers say Klein could be losing in the upcoming budget on a number of policy fronts that he has wanted to get inserted into the final spending plan. Getting the Dream Act passed would have given Klein a way to blunt criticism he has been getting from left-leaning members of his Democratic Party.
But even with the bill failing, Klein, who is facing a possible primary contest this fall, can still say he used his pressure to get reluctant Republicans to bring the controversial measure to a vote, and he was praised by some Democrats during the floor debate for getting the bill this far. Now, Klein can say he tried, but that there just wasn’t the support in the full chamber for the Dream Act.
“Each and every one of you have a duty … that every New Yorker has a fair shot at a quality education,” Klein said during the floor debate. “You are either standing up for these students to get their shot or standing in the way.”
The Republicans had their own political calculations, not the least of which is that they could use some yes votes of certain Senate Democrats in more moderate and conservative districts – and possibly facing tough re-election races this fall – as political points against them with voters in those districts.
Unlike a stalled federal bill, the New York measure would not have provided a direct path to citizenship of the children of illegal immigrants. Four other states – California, Texas, New Mexico and the state of Washington – give college benefits to the children of illegal immigrants.
The legislation that failed Monday did not include funding for the Dream Act, had it passed. A host of state college aid funds would have been available to thousands of children of illegal immigrants under the bill, including the popular TAP program, which now gives up to $5,000 annually to students going to state university colleges, and the 529 savings programs that gives state tax benefits for money put aside for college.
To qualify, students would have had to have attended a registered New York high school for two or more years, graduated from a New York high school or gotten a high school equivalency diploma.
A legislative memo in support of the measure notes that New York, since 2002, enables hundreds of thousands of students who are children of illegal immigrants to attend state public colleges, but not with any financial aid from the state.
Peralta, the Senate sponsor, said the state, by court order, has been providing free education for children of illegal immigrants from kindergarten through high school. “Are you going to be on the right side of history or the wrong side of history,’’ Peralta said to his colleagues.