Under a proposal in the Legislature, low-income students who are here illegally — already eligible for in-state college tuition rates — could now qualify for state financial aid as well.

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Under a proposal in the Legislature, low-income students who are here illegally — already eligible for in-state college-tuition rates — could also qualify for state financial aid.

Washington’s largest student-aid program, the State Need Grant, awarded $195 million in assistance to 71,000 low-income students this school year. And at a time when increasing numbers of Washingtonians are seeking student aid in a battered economy, House Bill 1706 and Senate Bill 5959 would extend eligibility in the grant program to illegal-immigrant students.

Students like Manuel Garcia, a Mount Vernon High School junior with a 3.9 GPA, whose mother brought him to the U.S. when he was a baby.

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Now, 17, he’d like to attend Washington State University when he graduates next year but keeps hearing from aid counselors that he doesn’t qualify for assistance and can’t work on campus.

“They say … if you have the money you can come,” Garcia said. “I think it’s obvious I don’t have $20,000 to go to college.”

The financial-aid measures come five years after the Legislature passed HB 1079, which allowed illegal immigrants who have lived in the state for three years and graduated from a Washington high school to qualify for in-state tuition.

Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, sponsor of the House bill, said, “Education should have no borders.”

It’s unfair to educate children through high school and then bar some of the neediest and most deserving from getting help to continue to on to college, he said.

“When you say to a well-qualified high-school graduate that there’s no assistance but you can go to college, that to me, is a huge barrier,” Quall said.

But those concerned about the impact of illegal immigration in this country say it’s also not fair to ask families struggling to educate their own children to subsidize the education of those whose parents broke the law in bringing them here.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, asked: “What about that kid you’ll never hear about, who also worked hard, who has dreams and aspirations … a kid who may not be able to go to college because the money is going to someone here illegally?

“I guess the Legislature and governor can’t find enough ways to spend all the surplus money they have.”

The Need Grant provides up to $6,000 a year in financial assistance to eligible low-income state students to attend public universities. To qualify for those maximum amounts, the income for a family of four cannot exceed $37,500.

To be eligible for any kind of aid, that same family’s income can’t exceed $52,500.

The bills would mostly benefit Latinos since they represent the largest percentage of the estimated 260,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington state.

They are the state’s fastest-growing population and are projected by 2030 to become the first minority group to top 1 million residents.

Over the last two decades, the Latino K-12 student population grew at a rate of 372 percent, while the white student population grew by 6 percent.

Most of these kids grew up in this state and, like Mount Vernon High’s Garcia, consider themselves American. “I love my country; this is my country,” he said.

But they don’t qualify for most private scholarships, which often require a valid Social Security number. Often, those who don’t go on to college end up in low-skilled jobs.

Even those who do finish college have few options because their illegal status puts most professional jobs out of reach.

FAIR’s Mehlman said while their circumstances are unfortunate, it’s their parents who bear ultimate responsibility.

“We invested in their K-12 and now we are being told to come up with countless thousands more to put them through college … and then they still can’t go to work,” he said.

Since the Legislature passed the in-state tuition bill in 2003, an estimated 1,700 illegal-immigrant students have used it.

Ricardo Sanchez, chairman of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, which is backing the bill, said, “We think that 1,700 could double if these students had access to financial aid.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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