Student and immigrant advocates are stepping up efforts to pass state legislation aimed at improving college access and affordability for undocumented Illinoisans.
Supporters of the "Student Access Bill" packed a conference room at the University of Illinois at Chicago Wednesday afternoon to launch their advocacy campaign for the legislation.
The measure would let undocumented Illinois students who meet certain requirements compete for state-funded financial aid and scholarship opportunities at public, four-year universities.
Currently, undocumented immigrants in Illinois are ineligible for public university scholarships, grants, waivers and other forms of financial assistance. They also cannot obtain federal student aid.
"The state of Illinois recognizes undocumented students in the K-12 system, provides them with a diploma from high schools, and then recognizes them as in-state students," but universities cannot "allow them to compete for scholarships," UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis said at the event, also attended by University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen. "If Illinois is going to strengthen its economic standing and its competitiveness, it must leverage every asset. And make no mistake, our undocumented students are huge assets to our state, to our economy and to our future."
Miguel Lopez was among the undocumented students who spoke to the importance of the proposed legislation. Without access to scholarships and financial aid, Lopez said community college was the only higher education option he could afford. Even still, Lopez has had to work full-time while in school in order to pay for his classes at Harold Washington College in Chicago.
"Even though I'm about to finish my associates, it's taken me double the time to finish because I've been a part-time student and a full-time worker, saving for the next semester all the time," he said. "Students should not go through this burden in order to get an education."
State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) and state Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), who were at the campaign kick-off, plan to spearhead the bill in their respective chambers during the next regular legislative session, which starts in January.
The legislation, if approved, would make Illinois the sixth U.S. state to extend financial aid opportunities to undocumented students.
A similar bill, HB 3528, failed to clear the state legislature last session.
Hernandez, who sponsored HB 3528, said there was some opposition in the House to a provision in the original bill that would have allowed qualified undocumented Illinois students to compete for taxpayer-funded Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants. The need-based grant program helps low-income Illinois students pay for tuition at colleges and universities in the state.
In an effort to improve the bill's chances in the upcoming session, the MAP provision is not included in the new legislation, Hernandez said.
Advocates also stressed that the Student Access Bill is "revenue-neutral," because it does not increase state aid for scholarships and grants.
The legislation places "no financial burden on the state," Hernandez said.
"On the contrary, it's viewed as an investment," she added. "Universities want this."
Approximately 1,500 undocumented Illinois students enrolled in state universities could be impacted by the legislation, also backed by former Republican Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. He penned an opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday, in which he called the Student Access Bill "politically smart and morally right."
Edgar is on the Steering Committee of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, whose co-chair John Rowe also spoke in support of the legislation at Wednesday's campaign launch.
Martinez said she is encouraged by the bill's diverse coalition of supporters.
"When you look at the support that we have, as far as all the partners that we have joining this campaign, I know the chances are that we are going to pass a bill and Gov. Rauner is going to sign (it) into law," she told the crowd.