Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California Dream Act 101: What it does, who qualifies, and what happens next

Photo by un.sospiro/Flickr (Creative Commons)

On Saturday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a landmark piece of state legislation that will allow undocumented college students to obtain publicly-funded financial aid, now only available to students who are U.S. citizens and legal residents. It's part of a two-bill package referred to as the California Dream Act, the first part of which Brown signed into law last July.

The bill signed this weekend, AB131, has been extremely divisive in a state that's undergoing a budget crisis. Opponents have said the state can't afford it; supporters have pointed out that part of the funding for the measure is already set aside annually for low-income students, including undocumented kids who have so far been unable to tap into it.

So what does the California Dream Act do, exactly? A few basics:

What it changes: Undocumented college students can't presently access state-funded financial aid, leading most to work several jobs while studying and to apply for a limited number of scholarships available to them. AB 131 gives these students access to Cal Grants, a program that provides aid to low-income students, and other state-funded tuition aid provided they meet the state residency requirements set by California law. They also become eligible for fee waivers at the community college level.

AB 130, the bill signed in July, allows undocumented students access to $88 million in privately funded university scholarships and grants that were previously not available to them.

What it doesn't change: Unlike the similarly-named federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, neither of the two state measures proposes granting legal status to these students, a change that would be up to the federal government. The fact that they don't have a path to legal status now has been pointed out by California Dream Act opponents, who complain that undocumented students can't fully utilize their degrees after graduation.

What it costs: According to state budget office estimates provided by the office of Assembly member Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored both California Dream Act bills, AB 131 could cost anywhere between $22 million and $42 million annually to implement. Roughly $13 million of that would come from money that is already set aside for low-income students whose grades qualify them for Cal Grants.

Brown has stated that an estimated 2,500 additional students will qualify for Cal Grants as a result of the legislation at a cost of $14.5 million, about 1 percent of the total Cal Grants cost.

Who qualifies: In order to apply for state-funded financial aid, undocumented students must meet the residency requirements under which California law allows them to obtain in-state tuition. This means that qualifying students must have: Attended secondary school in California for three or more years; graduated from a California secondary school, or obtained a graduation equivalent; filed an affidavit with the college or university they are attending stating that they have applied for legal immigration status, or will apply once they are eligible to do so.

The last provision must be met to qualify for aid, said sponsor Cedillo, although those who have tried but can't adjust their status won't be left out. "They have to make their best effort and do what is possible," he said in a phone interview Saturday, "then that is their part."

In addition, not everyone will be able to obtain competitive Cal Grants. Under AB 131, undocumented students can't receive competitive CalGrants (there are several kinds) unless there is funding left over after other eligible California residents have received the awards.

What happens next: AB 130 is set to take effect in January; AB 131 does not become effective until 2013. However, the latter date could change if there is a referendum on AB 131, as planned by some California Dream Act opponents. Republican state Assembly member Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, a vocal opponent of AB 131 who urged Gov. Brown to veto the bill, has indicated that he may try to put the issue on the state ballot.