With a nod to the growing Latino population in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed Monday the DREAM Act that expands educational opportunities for undocumented immigrant students.
Quinn signed the legislation at Chicago's Benito Juarez Community Academy in the presence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with other elected officials as well as civic, religious and academic leaders.
The Dream Act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors and .
“All children have the right to a first-class education,” the governor said. “The Illinois DREAM Act creates more opportunities for the children of immigrants to achieve a fulfilling career, brighter future and better life through higher education.”
Emanuel also praised the legislation, saying that immigrants continued to be a "driving force in our city’s cultural and economic life."
“I am proud that families and students across Illinois will now have a better shot at the American Dream—which starts with a great education,” he added.
Lawrence Benito called the signing of the law a "victory" for his organization and the student activists. The deputy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) praised the bipartisan work of the state's General Assembly in passing the bill in June.
"Both Republicans and Democrats stepped up and put [their] political differences aside," Benito told Skokie Patch on Monday. "Big hearts and broad minds prevailed."
Benito said that a similar coalition of supporters is required in Washington, D.C., "to fix our broken immigration system."
The law offers as many as 95,000 undocumented youths in Illinois better access to higher education--a controversial provision being opposed by critics who contend that it undercuts opportunities for documented students.
Rigo Padilla is an undocumented student who came to the U.S. at age 6. He just graduated from college and plans to pursue graduate studies at University of Illinois in Chicago this fall.
Padilla said Illinois "is taking a step in the right direction" as opposed to states like Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, which recently passed more stringent laws against undocumented immigrants.
Padilla, who lives in the Chicago area, calls the law an "acknowledgement" of a problem that undocumented students are part of the Illinois school system while offering a practical solution to the issue.
Passage of the law has been spearheaded by the Hispanic bloc whose numbers have seen a dramatic increase in Illinois over the past decade. Hispanics now account for 15.8 percent of the state's population, according to the U.S. Census.
According to the governor's office, an estimated 65 percent of immigrant students come from households earning below 200 percent of the poverty line, which the federal government places at $22,350 for a family of four.
"The financial barriers to higher education for academically qualified immigrant students are steep. Through the DREAM commission, Illinois leaders will now be able to raise private funds to help these students achieve their full potential," Quinn said.
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.
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 an all-volunteer nine-member Illinois DREAM Fund Commission to manage the program, whose scholarships "will be funded entirely" by private contributions.
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 over the legislation.
Tyler Bush, a Robinson resident, wrote to Skokie Patch that he is skeptical of the claim that not a single tax dollar would go to the program. He noted that the State Treasurer's Office is required by law to periodically provide statements of gain or loss to each member.
"It seems to me that there is the potential for more employees or more hours worked by [the] present employees in the Treasurer's Office to be in compliance. Taxes pay those salaries," Bush said in his message.
"It is an interesting concept that individuals or groups may select which laws they choose to obey and which ones they choose to ignore," he added.
Asked by Skokie Patch about the potential problem, Benito of ICIRR skirted the question by saying that the problem only illustrates that there was a need for "comprehensive immigration reform" at the federal level.