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Dream Act: California embraces anti-Arizona role on illegal immigration

The California Senate passed its version of the Dream Act this week, setting itself up as a leader among states addressing illegal immigration with greater sympathy.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / September 1, 2011

Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D) talks with Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D) as members of the state Assembly debate his measure that would allow students who are illegal immigrants to hold student government office and receive any grants, scholarships, or other assistance that come with the jobs at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Wednesday.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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With the Obama administration and Congress stalled on immigration reform, California has joined the growing parade of states acting on their own to pressure Washington into action.

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The Democrat-controlled state Senate on Wednesday night passed its version of the Dream Act – a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who attended state high schools for three or more years to apply for state-funded college financial aid. The federal version of the bill, which was most recently defeated in December, allows a path to citizenship for illegal-immigrant students and members of the military who were brought to the US as children.

The California Senate vote is a sign that the immigration debate at state level is being driven as much by those sympathetic to illegal immigration as those determined to curtail it, says Catherine Wilson, an immigration analyst at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The states cracking down on immigration have gotten more press attention and skewed the public perception of what is really happening, she says. Following the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 – which requires police to ask for identification from anyone they suspect of being undocumented – four other states enacted copycat legislation: Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Utah opted for a hybrid of both tightened law enforcement as well as a temporary guest worker program. All these laws are being challenged in court.

By contrast, nine states, including California, have enacted laws permitting anyone in the state for a certain amount of time to pay in-state rates. A handful have also passed their own Dream Acts, offering state aid to illegal immigrants.

“It just goes to show that in the absence of federal immigration legislation, states are really taking control of the issue,” says Professor Wilson. But “it’s important for the public to understand that far fewer states are following Arizona’s lead and more are following the direction of California."

It is natural that the American state with the most immigrants should take the lead on this issue, some say.

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