The state Senate has passed a bill that would allow unauthorized immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Minnesota colleges and universities.
The measure, called the "Prosperity Act," would also give students in the country illegally access to state financial aid.
Though it once shared a name with an immigration proposal in the U.S. Congress, Minnesota's DREAM Act focuses only on college tuition. If passed by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, students in Minnesota illegally would be eligible for lower, in-state tuition rates. At the University of Minnesota, for example, it would mean paying $13,524 a year instead of $18,774.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, the bill's chief author, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said students who have grown up in Minnesota and want to be Americans should be treated the same as anyone else who has grown up here.
"This is very important for actually a very small number of students. But it's very symbolic for a lot of students in the state," Pappas said. "A lot of immigrant students who dare to dream that they too can attain a college education."
Nestor Gomez, 19, is one of 750 students the bill is meant to help by letting them qualify for in-state tuition. He entered the United States from Mexico illegally with his parents at age nine. Now, a decade later, he has a high school diploma and is in his second year at North Hennepin Community College. At that school, state residents and nonresidents pay the same tuition. If the measure is enacted, Gomez said he will be able to obtain tuition assistance.
"If the DREAM Act does pass, I'll be eligible to receive financial aid," Gomez said. "I'll be eligible to apply for scholarships that my school offers but that I can't qualify for."
“When we're talking about public money -- the taxpayers' money -- that's where I personally draw the line.”Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd
Gomez says he wants to be an environmental engineer. He holds out hope that he may eventually be allowed to work legally in the United States -- either under the Obama administration's deferred action program or some sort of path to citizenship, should Congress approve one.
To become eligible for in-state tuition under the Minnesota DREAM Act, applicants would have to attend a high school in the state for at least three years and graduate. They would have to register for the military draft and also show proof they have applied to the federal government for legal immigration status.
But Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said unless Congress makes major changes to immigration law, the state should not encourage students to rack up college debt.
"We're kind of offering a false promise without that federal change. We would be enticing students to come in, saying 'Look, your college education is going to be more affordable,' But still they would be taking on probably tens of thousands of dollars of debt," Nienow said. "And when they get done, without a change at the federal level, if they don't have a pathway, they legally cannot get a job."
Of the 750 students who would qualify for in-state tuition under the bill, about half would qualify for the state grant, which is Minnesota's main source of financial aid. The Office of Higher Education said extending the grant to those students would cost about half a million dollars directly, and another $100,000 to set up a special financial aid form.
While many Republicans support giving in-state tuition and privately-funded scholarships to students here illegally, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said the students should not receive money from the state.
"I don't mind the fact that we want to help them; that we want to give them the same tuition rates that any other Minnesotan would be (paying). I think it's a good idea when an institution wants to come up with private dollars," Gazelka said. "But when we're talking about public money -- the taxpayers' money -- that's where I personally draw the line."
Besides the cost of the grants to the state, the University of Minnesota said the bill would cost the system about $175,000 a year because of the lower tuition. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system says it would lose about $1.5 million. But both systems say they can absorb those costs.
The Minnesota House has yet to pass a similar measure. But a spokeswoman for Dayton said the governor has supported similar legislation in the past and will sign it if it reaches his desk.