Sacramento -- Thousands of California students in the country illegally will be eligible to receive state financial aid to attend public colleges, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Saturday known as the California Dream Act.
But Brown ducked a costly legal battle over affirmative action by vetoing a bill that would have let California's public universities consider an applicant's race and sex in admission decisions.
"I wholeheartedly agree with the goal of this legislation," Brown said in his veto message of SB185. But because of Prop. 209 - the 1996 constitutional amendment approved by California voters that outlaws "preferential treatment" on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education or contracting - Brown said the courts, not the Legislature, should decide if changes can be made.
The decisions came as the governor continued to work through the hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature at the end of the session last month, including vetoing other measures dealing with charter schools and measurements of student performance. He has until midnight tonight to complete his work on 142 remaining bills.
The California Dream Act - AB131 - has been one of the most-watched bills on the governor's desk. The law, which takes effect in 2013, still must be approved by the UC regents, but they are expected to support the measure.
Opponents favoring stricter immigration laws are warning that they will try to block the measure through a referendum on next year's ballot.
But undocumented students themselves cheered the news that they will be eligible to get financial help to attend the state's public colleges and universities.
"Yeah!" exclaimed UC Berkeley student Gabriela Monico, who came from El Salvador at 15 in 2005. "I'm really excited - not just for me, but knowing that so many other students will be able to qualify for state aid."
Monico, who joined her father in the United States and overstayed her visa, has paid for Berkeley with private donations and a job where she is paid through a third party. She's been homeless and has sneaked into campus buildings to sleep.
The California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants, calculates that 5,462 undocumented students will be eligible for state aid in the 2013-14 school year, at a cost of slightly more than $13 million.
The cost to taxpayers will actually be higher than $13 million in any given year because many undocumented students also will be eligible for a fee waiver at community colleges for very low-income students, and others will qualify for institutional aid provided by CSU and UC.
At UC, that could amount to $4 million or $5 million a year, according to the university's legislative director, Nadia Leal-Carrillo.
Opponents say the Dream Act will be a nightmare for taxpayers.
"Tuition rates have been going up, the universities have budget cuts of $1.2 billion and there are lotteries for classes - but if someone is here illegally, we roll out the red carpet," said Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks (San Bernardino County), who serves as vice chairman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee.
Out of the shadows
Despite their lack of legal paperwork, the students won't be hiding in the shadows. Already, such students are required to sign an affidavit saying they are in the process of requesting legal status if they want to pay the lower in-state tuition rate at public universities.
The heads of California's three public university systems and many campus leaders have expressed strong support for the law authored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles.
About 100 undocumented students are enrolled at Berkeley, and about 800 across the UC system, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said, adding that many such students are brought to this country as children "and didn't do anything illegal themselves."
Typically, such students have the hardest time paying for college because they cannot legally be employed, they qualify for no financial aid, and their parents often are not wealthy enough to help.
"It's incredibly stressful," undocumented student Alejandro Jimenez told The Chronicle last year as part of story showing how students from various backgrounds pay rising tuition.