Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Immigrant advocates, frustrated by the intransigence surrounding the federal DREAM Act, have gone to the state level to push legislation to help undocumented immigrant children go to college. In New York, the DREAM fund is a softer version of a state DREAM Act. Rather than state Tuition Assistance Program being available to undocumented college students, a private fund would help raise and distribute donations to eligible students.
Earlier this week Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced the imminent passage of legislation to create a privately funded grant that would help undocumented youth pay for college.
“This legislation supports the dreams and academic aspirations of the children of immigrants at no additional cost to taxpayers,” Silver stated in a press release. “These are young adults striving to climb the ladder to success and this legislation will reduce the cost of education and make it easier for our hardworking immigrant families to save for college.”
The bill sailed through the Assembly, with only six assembly members voting against the measure. Nearly all of the chamber’s Republican minority--including Assemblyman Brian Kolb, their leader—voted for the measure.
“There's no public funds being directed in this particular program. These are the sort of initiatives I think make a lot of sense," Kolb said after the bill’s passage. “An educated workforce keeps our state and families stronger."
The bill is one of a string of signature Democratic policy pieces coming out of the Assembly shop. The near-universal Republican support in the Assembly doesn’t necessarily mean their counterparts in the state Senate are interested in passing the DREAM fund any time soon. As we saw with campaign finance, the Republican-controlled state Senate may be the place where issues like the DREAM fund go to die.
“We're focused on a number of different things, including how do we help businesses create jobs. We’re focused on bringing taxes down as far as we can. You know, controlling spending,” senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif said. “Anything that gets out of that right now, especially in a fragile economy...”
He trailed off without finishing that statement, but you can fill in the rest.
But that doesn’t mean advocates are giving up.
Senator Jeff Klein, the sponsor of the Assembly-passed bill in the Senate and the co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, noted Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelo had spent the past two years reaching out to minority communities, like the Unidad Latina conference Skelos hosted last October. Klein sees the DREAM bills are another way for Skelos to show he’s committed to building a Republican bridge to the Latino community.
“He clearly wants to make inroads in minority communities, especially the Hispanic communities. I think this would be kind of a culmination of the efforts he’s made over the last year-and-a-half, to pass the DREAM Fund,” Klein said.
Activist groups are also turning their attention to senate, especially Long Island Republican members such as Senator Lee Zeldin, whose Brookhaven-centered district has a sizable Latino minority population.
It also an area energized by anti-undocumented immigrant backlash and a vibrant Tea Party that helped get Zeldin elected. To illustrate the difficulties DREAM Fund advocates have getting Republicans on board, Zeldin’s office released a statement this week after the bill passed the Assembly:
I do not support expanding eligibility for college scholarships to undocumented immigrants at the expense of immigrants who are lawfully in our country.
Then there’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Advocates have hoped Cuomo would be a vocal supporter of the measure and bring his rock star public approval rating and mountains of political capital to bear in the debate. So far, Cuomo has tread carefully, offering non-committal affirmations of wanting to make college affordable for everyone.
There is one group who are hoping to benefit from the passage of the DREAM fund—as well as the other so-far on-chamber bills coming out of the Assembly—and that are Democrats running for state legislative offices this year. With a laundry list of Democratic priorities potentially waiting in limbo in the Republican-controlled state senate, what would be better than sending more Democrats to Albany to finish the job? With senate Republicans uninterested in taking up their Democratic colleagues causes, the campaign trail may be where we’ll see the only activity on the DREAM fund for the rest of this year.