SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown Saturday signed legislation allowing undocumented immigrant college students to receive public financial aid, marking California's relatively liberal ground in a bitter row over immigration nationwide.
The California Dream Act allows access to public financial aid, including Cal Grants, for undocumented students who came to the country before turning 16 and attended California high schools. Those students already are eligible for in-state tuition, and Brown in July signed a companion measure affording them access to private financial aid.
"Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking. The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us," Brown said in a prepared statement.
Brown, a Democrat, supported the act during last year's gubernatorial campaign, and his signature was all but certain. He had negotiated amendments to the bill, Assembly Bill 131, to reduce costs, excluding graduates of technical and adult schools and delaying implementation until January 2013.
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The bill, by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, was passed by lawmakers on partisan lines. Democrats said it would result in a more educated population. Republicans said awarding scholarships to undocumented students would encourage illegal immigration, and they objected to the cost.
The program's expansion is expected to cost the state $23 million to $40 million annually.
Brown's signature comes amidst tension nationwide about immigration, most recently over strict new laws in Georgia and Alabama. Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced it would suspend deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants who aren't a danger to public safety, including people who immigrated as young children and are in school.
Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly said the legislation would encourage illegal immigration and force students who are in the country legally to compete with undocumented immigrants for public resources.
"I think that it is perhaps the biggest mistake that Gov. Brown has ever made," he said, "other than unionizing public employees."
Donnelly, of Twin Peaks, is setting up a website, "STOP the Nightmare Act," and pledged to launch a referendum campaign.
In a prepared statement, Cedillo said the bill "will send a message across the country that California is prepared to lead the country with a positive and productive vision for how we approach challenging issues related to immigration."