A Latino policy forum drew dozens of educators, community leaders, lawmakers and others to a conference center at SeaTac Friday.
Sen. Ed Murray plans to sponsor legislation next year that would open state-funded college aid to low-income graduates of state high schools who are in the country unlawfully.
“I feel so strongly about the justice and need for this that I plan to make passage one of my top legislative priorities in 2013,” Murray, of Seattle, stated in prepared remarks that were delivered on his behalf at a Latino policy forum Friday to dozens of educators, community leaders and fellow state Democratic lawmakers.
Such legislation is sure to be controversial, given the state of the economy, the limited resources that are available for higher education and the unwillingness of some conservative lawmakers to extend public benefits to those here illegally.
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While details would still need to be worked out, the measure would enable these students to qualify for State Need Grant and College Bound programs, as well as other publicly funded financial aid.
Supporters called the plan the next logical step in a process that began nearly a decade ago when the Legislature passed House Bill 1079 allowing those students in this country illegally to qualify for in-state tuition rates.
“Ten years later these same students still don’t qualify for state financial aid that helps children from low-income backgrounds go to college,” said Ricardo Sanchez, director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project.
“These are bright, gifted kids who deserve and want to go to college. It would put them in a position to repay the substantial education investment we have made in them.”
Some 75,000 Washington students this academic year are benefiting from the state’s largest financial-aid program, State Need Grant, with another 32,000 eligible but unserved because there’s not enough money.
The Legislature allocated $266 million toward State Need this year and $303 million for the upcoming school year in light of increased tuition rates across the state.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates controlled immigration, said it’s unfair to ask Washington families struggling to educate their own children to subsidize the education of those whose parents broke the law in bringing them here.
“The idea that a state that is cutting services everywhere is going to come up with even more money to finance higher education for illegal aliens, something that’s not even mandated under federal law, makes no sense.”
The financial-aid proposal was one of several policy proposals raised during the daylong Latino forum, sponsored by Sea Mar Community Health Centers and its Latino Educational Achievement Project. The event was aimed at drawing attention to the growing educational needs of Latinos and exploring ways to help them succeed.
Latinos represent the nation’s largest minority group and — as many of the speakers reminded the audience — the nation’s economic success is intricately tied to theirs.
The gathering, at the Hilton Seattle Airport & Conference Center, was a virtual Who’s Who of educational leaders from across the state and within the Latino community: Randy Dorn, state Superintendent of Public Instruction; the superintendents of the Seattle and Kent school districts; four college presidents and university chancellors.
Murray couldn’t attend the forum because of other pressing matters, but a panel of Democratic lawmakers addressed the ideas and kicked around some of their own, including bringing foreign-language education to kids as early as kindergarten.
They resisted taking up the thorny subject of financial aid for undocumented students until pushed by Debra Wilds, president and chief operating officer of the College Success Foundation, which provides some financial assistance for undocumented immigrant students.
The lawmakers, all Democrats who chair education-related committees, pointed out that the Legislature will start the session next year with the state in the red. While they already support the idea, they urged those gathered to contact lawmakers who might be on the fence or against it, in order to move the issue forward.
“What are you going to do to make sure we get that legislation passed?” asked Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle, who sponsored the in-state-tuition bill in 2003.
Three states — California, New Mexico and Texas — now provide financial aid to undocumented immigrant students. Three years ago, a similar measure was introduced in the Legislature here, but received only a single hearing before it died.