Thrusting the state into the middle of the heated immigration debate, Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign in the coming weeks the Illinois DREAM Act that offers as many as 95,000 undocumented youths better access to higher education.
A source told Skokie Patch that Quinn would sign the legislation on Aug. 1, making Illinois the first state in the country to create a privately funded scholarship program for undocumented high school graduates who want to attend college.
The bill--formally SB 2185--passed with bipartisan support in the state House and Senate. In a rare development, the Catholic church and the state's top political leaders--who do not always see eye-to-eye on many social issues--joined forces to push for passage of the legislation.
Awaiting Quinn's signature
The Senate forwarded the measure, which got its legs in February, for Quinn's signature on June 13. The D-R-E-A-M in the act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.
With the growing influence of the Hispanic bloc--whose numbers have grown by nearly 500,000 in a state with 12.83 million residents, according to the latest U.S. Census figures--the vote was also seen as a recognition of the changing political reality in Illinois.
State Rep. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie), who represents several North Shore towns wth large ethnic populations, told Skokie Patch that the legislation would have long-term economic benefits for the state.
"I supported the bill because it's a step toward enabling individuals who have done nothing wrong to maximize their opportunity to contribute to the Illinois economy," Biss said.
State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston), one of the legislative co-sponsors, had told reporters the bill "illustrates exactly what is great about this country" by providing opportunity for children of immigrants "to achieve a better future through higher education."
The legislation allows any individual, including undocumented students, with a Social Security or taxpayer identification number to participate in a state-operated college savings pool. Currently, there are the Bright Start and Bright Directions college savings programs, both overseen by the State Treasurer's Office, and the College Illinois Prepaid Tuition Program. Families can use the programs to squirrel away money for college expenses.
In addition, high school counselors will be required to provide college information to all undocumented students and children of immigrants.
Thirdly, the measure requires the establishment of nine-member Illinois DREAM Fund Commission to manage the program, whose scholarships "will be funded entirely" by private contributions.
The latter provision is one of the most contentious part of the bill. Opponents contend that the law will take away taxpayers' money intended for children of documented immigrants.
“A lot of people feel they shouldn’t be spending their tax dollars for people who aren’t citizens or people who are trying to become citizens,” state Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Sycamore) said during the debate.
Supporters say not a single tax dollar goes to the program as the DREAM fund commission will be administered by volunteers appointed by the governor.
Benefits extend to others
While most of those who are affected are Hispanic, there are many other students who will benefit from the legislation becoming state law.
Among them is Carla Navoa, who came from the Philippines to the U.S. with her parents at age 5. Since then, they have overstayed their U.S. visa.
The 22-year-old resident of Chicago's northern suburbs has finished her junior year at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC). Because of her residency status, she is unable to apply for a federal loan or other grants available to documented and other students.
Navoa was forced to suspend her schooling to allow her parents to save the necessary money for her as well as her sister, who also will be attending UIC.
"For both of us, we will be affected by this [legislation] because it will help us pay for school" and finish college, said Navoa, who is an active member of the Illinois Youth Justice League (IYJL) that lobbied for the bill's passage.
After years of lobbying, Navoa told Skokie Patch that she was relieved that the education measure was passed, proving that Illinois "is supportive of the undocumented immigrants and is willing to be a leader in the country."
Attempts to pass similar legislation in California, where Hispanic residents make up 37.6 percent of the population compared with 15.8 percent in Illinois, have failed, but efforts have been renewed in the Golden State.
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) deputy director Lawrence Benito hailed the bill's passage by the General Assemby as "truly historic."
“This vote is a victory for our state and an important step forward in recognizing the contributions of immigrants,” said Benito, whose organization is one of the largest immigrant lobby groups in the U.S.
When the federal DREAM Act failed in the U.S. Congress last year, ICIRR and IYJL turned their efforts to the passage of the Illinois version of the bill.
"Those efforts paid off, showing that Illinois is not only an immigrant-friendly state but also a national leader on moving fair, humane and practical solutions forward," the ICIRR said in a statement.
Democratic leaders throughout Illinois, including in Chicago, have welcomed the legislation.
“I believe everyone has the right to a first-class education, and the Illinois DREAM Act strengthens Illinois’ commitment to ensuring education for all," Quinn said after the General Assembly votes on May 30.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was chided by some groups during the mayoral campaign for his silence on the issue, said the bill was a step forward.
"Once signed by Governor Quinn, the Illinois DREAM Act will help give Chicago students the start they need to get a shot at the American Dream--a good education. I understand how important this is to our city's families, and their future success," Emanuel said in a statement sent to Patch.
Now the fight goes back to Washington, D.C., where a new DREAM Act bill was introduced in May by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). A previous effort to pass federal legislation--first introduced in 2001--was deflated in December after it got through the House but failed to clear the Senate.
Navoa said given the "political climate" in the U.S. Congress, it is unlikely that a bill will be passed soon. But Navoa and her group are already recruiting more supporters locally.
"Come time when it is [ready]," Navoa said about the federal legislation, "we'll have at least a bigger base of people that are mobilizing" for its passage."