SHARE 14 COMMENTMORE

ALBANY, N.Y.- The state Assembly passed a bill Tuesday that would grant college financial aid to immigrants living in the country illegally, but its fate in the Senate is far less certain.

The Democrat-controlled Assembly voted 82-46 to approve the state DREAM Act, which would allow immigrants to participate in programs that distribute state-funded tuition breaks, including the Tuition Assistance Program and the Educational Opportunity Program.

The legislation now heads to the state Senate, where the chamber's co-leaders are split on whether to allow it to come to a vote. It's the second consecutive year the Assembly has passed the measure, which has support from the Legislature's Black and Puerto Rican caucus.

At a news conference Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said the state turns its backs on college-aged, non-documented immigrants after providing an education through high school.

"We deny these undocumented young students the same assistance we provide to their native-born classmates," Silver said. "How do we, a state built by immigrants, justify turning our backs on the next generation? It's shameful and it's wrong."

In addition to granting them access to state tuition programs, the bill would also create a state-administered scholarship fund for those in the state without legal permission. The Assembly plans on including $27 million in state money for the scholarship fund when it reveals its budget proposal, Silver said.

The bill has support from Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, and many Democrats in the Legislature, while Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- also a Democrat -- signaled earlier this month that he would sign it if it's passed by the Legislature.

But many Republican lawmakers have opposed the DREAM Act, including Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County, who has raised concerns about spending taxpayer dollars for scholarships available to those in the country illegally.

A spokesman for Skelos declined comment Tuesday.

Prior to the vote, Assembly Republicans tried to amend the bill on the floor by attaching a separate scholarship program that would allow a fixed number of New York students to receive a $2,500-a-year college education. But the amendment was shot down by lawmakers in the Assembly, who voted it wasn't germane to the DREAM Act.

"It's important that we develop avenues that open greater pathways to citizenship and provide opportunities for young people to earn a degree," Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said in a statement. "However, using taxpayer dollars to subsidize a scholarship program for illegal immigrants as the DREAM Act proposes is the wrong priority at the wrong time."

The DREAM Act has been supported by many of the state's labor unions, including the New York AFL-CIO, an umbrella group. The union's president, Mario Cilento, praised the bill at a news conference Tuesday with Silver and dozens of Assembly Democrats.

"This is an issue that affects all of us, whether you think it does or not," Cilento said. "This isn't just about today. It's about tomorrow, it's about the future. It's about the next generation. These young adults are our future."

Previously, Skelos had left open the door for a privately funded DREAM Fund. But Silver rejected that as an acceptable compromise Tuesday, arguing the state has to do more to provide for college-aged children of undocumented immigrants.

Skelos and Klein both must agree to bring a vote to the Senate floor. Klein and his four-member Independent Democratic Conference, which shares control of the Senate with Republicans, are co-sponsors of the legislation.

The Assembly vote Tuesday was largely along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition. Democrats hold a 2-to-1 majority in the chamber.

Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, said the DREAM Act would have a positive impact on students throughout the state, not just in New York City, which has the largest immigrant population.

"It's clear that the implications are beyond just the city of New York," said Mayer, who said she regularly encounters students from the Yonkers public schools who don't have access to financial-aid programs. "My experience in the city of Yonkers and certainly in the suburban communities is this is a very real issue for us, as well."

Assemblyman Bill Nojay, R-Pittsford, Monroe County, said the DREAM Act vote "continues the long-standing tradition of downstate liberals turning their backs on middle-class families."

"Rewarding criminal behavior while burdening those who played by the rules with crippling student loans is unconscionable, and I call on the Senate to kill this legislation so it does not become law," Nojay said.

SHARE 14 COMMENTMORE