YAKIMA, Wash. — Not quite a year ago, news out of the Legislature in Olympia broke 18-year-old Kimberly Aleman’s heart.
Legislators in April said talk of a Dream Act — a proposal that could make undocumented students eligible for state need grant money — was dead and unlikely to be revived.
At the time, it looked like Aleman — like many other undocumented students — would miss out on a higher education and her dream of becoming an immigration attorney.
How things have changed in less than a year.
A similar proposal — a bipartisan effort known as the Real Hope Act — could pass the Legislature in the current session, potentially giving some of the estimated 1,100 students statewide a chance to pursue a college education.
Aleman moved with her family from Tijuana to the Yakima Valley when she was 3. Growing up, she never expected her family’s choices would affect her education plans.
“I didn’t feel any different from any student until freshman year in high school, when some started talking about FAFSA (the federal financial aid form) and financial aid,” said Aleman, a Wapato High School graduate attending Yakima Valley Community College. “I tell my mom that I want to go to college and I want to continue studying.”
Her mom told her she was not a legal resident and continuing into college could be difficult.
Without the Real Hope Act, Aleman can only apply for private scholarships and must use savings to pay for classes. To cover some of her YVCC costs, she works at a fast-food restaurant but also has to help her family pay bills. If the legislation passes, she said she would worry less about finances and more about trying to “make a difference.”
In Seattle, University of Washington graduate student Jorge Borunda, 30, said the passage of the Real Hope Act would be a welcome relief to students like him. Borunda, who will earn a master’s in information management next year, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and emigrated as a teen. He is a West Valley High School graduate.
It took Borunda eight years to finish his undergraduate studies at Heritage University because he couldn’t apply for financial aid — in two of those years, he dropped out entirely.
Through a combination of private scholarships and an IT job, Borunda is nearly finished — but he said he can’t say the same for others.
“Growing up, people told you that you had to go to college,” he said. “But then you realize the truth when you’re staring at your applications and applying to the colleges.”
Rey Juarez, a counselor at Davis High School, said he sees students give up because their undocumented status prevents them from getting necessary aid. Something like the Senate measure could motivate students to aim higher.
“They can become those doctors, become engineers, become teachers, become attorneys — but it’s going to take some money,” Juarez said.
The concept of the Dream Act appeared dead on arrival again in the 2014 session. The House approved its version of the measure (House Bill 1817) in the first week. Senate Republicans, though, said they would not bring it up for a vote, saying it was not a high priority.
But in a stunning reversal, Republicans introduced their own version of the bill just weeks later, changed its name to the Real Hope Act (Senate Bill 6523) and passed it out of the Senate with bipartisan support. It currently awaits a second reading in the House.
Under the Real Hope Act, undocumented students could qualify for state need grants if they lived in Washington for at least three years, graduated from high school, were granted deferred action status by the federal government and provided an affidavit to their school stating they would file for permanent residency as soon as they were eligible. In addition, the Senate version would allocate an additional $5 million into the need grant pot that could cover an estimated 1,100 students living in Washington illegally.
The Republican reversal angered some. In Olympia, some Republican senators, including Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, removed their names from the GOP majority caucus website to protest some of their colleagues’ decision, including passing the Real Hope Act by sending it straight to a floor vote, bypassing the committee process.
Locally, Bob West of Grassroots of Yakima Valley, referred to the measure as the “Real Nightmare Act,” saying Republicans betrayed their conservative ideals. Grassroots of Yakima Valley favors smaller government, gun rights and lower taxes and opposes anything that smacks of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
West said undocumented students — even if they came unwittingly into the country — should not get state aid for college.
Students can still attend college, West said, by finding other income sources, like part-time or full-time jobs.
“Anything we do that further benefits the people that break the law just encourages more lawbreaking,” he said. “When you encourage law breaking, you get more law breaking.”
Another issue with the proposal is the perception that adding more students into the state need grant program will burden the system even more. Currently, more than 32,000 eligible students can’t get financial aid. Serving them would cost about $140 million, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency in charge of the state need grant program.
Regardless, Executive Director Gene Sharratt — who was once a principal in Naches Valley — said at a recent Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board meeting that any form of the Dream Act is the right step. His agency pushed a 10-year plan last year designed to result in a postsecondary education for at least 70 percent of the state’s adult population.
“I just saw so many of them working hard, getting great grades and not having something there at the end of the road,” he said, referring to students in his time in the Valley and as Educational Service District superintendent in Wenatchee, which also has a sizable immigrant population. “As a council, we’ve been very supportive of the Dream Act. We’re supportive of anything that increases access for any Washingtonian into the system.”
At Heritage in Toppenish, Financial Aid Director Oscar Verduzco said the state has two challenges when it comes to need grant funding.
“The first challenge of the state is how to adequately fund the state aid programs more,” he said, “and the last one is to not forget about a portion of the state that was educated in the K-12 system and then the support dies off.”
Local higher education institutions fully support the Real Hope Act. Verduzco said opening state aid to undocumented students would help alleviate financial pressures among some students who frequent his office saying they have to postpone — even cancel — their postsecondary plans because their financial resources ran out.
In Ellensburg, Central Washington University spokeswoman Linda Schactler said administrators want to make college affordable for everyone; such a measure could boost student enrollment at the regional university.
“We are supporting both the Senate and House versions and we are hoping one or both of them pass,” Schactler said.