The Senate has passed the same bill twice since 2007, but ran into opposition from former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The children of immigrants who are in Minnesota illegally would be eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid at the state's public colleges and universities under a bill the state Senate passed on Wednesday.
The bill often called the "Dream Act" passed by a 41-23 vote. Four Republicans split from the rest of their party to support it, while two Democrats strayed from the majority to vote against it.
The Senate has passed the same bill twice since 2007, but ran into opposition from former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This time around, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is a strong supporter. The House has not voted on the bill, but sponsor Sen. Sandy Pappas said she's hoping to insert the provision into a larger higher education bill.
"Most of these students have lived their whole lives here but face financial barriers to attending our public colleges that are not of their own making," said Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. She said giving those students greater access to college would pay off in a better educated state workforce.
The Senate vote came the same day as a march and Capitol rally by a coalition of labor and other groups advocating changes to state and federal immigration laws. Hundreds of people marched from downtown St. Paul to the Capitol despite snow and cold winds. They hoisted signs that read "Stop deportation: we are not criminals" and chanted "Si su puede," a frequent immigration rally cry that means "We can do it."
In Washington, members of Congress and the Obama administration are negotiating on immigration legislation that could include new citizenship opportunities for people now living in the country illegally.
Republicans said it made little sense to change a major aspect of Minnesota immigration law without knowing what the federal government will do. "The state of Minnesota should not get in the way," said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen.
Under the bill, students of immigrants who came to Minnesota without legal status would qualify for both in-state tuition and state financial aid programs provided they attended a Minnesota high school for at least three years. In-state tuition rates at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota system schools range from $8,000 to $10,000 a year; for non-Minnesota residents, tuition is about twice that.
A number of Senate Republicans said they could support the tuition changes but not making such students eligible for Minnesota financial aid programs. Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Shakopee, said those students would be new competition to Minnesota students already vying for limited financial aid dollars. But Pappas argued that many immigrant families have limited incomes and need financial aid resources, and Democrats defeated a Republican amendment to strip out financial aid eligibility.
Pappas said the state's Office of Higher Education estimates about 750 students could benefit from the bill. Marco Loera, an 18-year-old senior at Mayo High School in Rochester who marched at the rally, said his parents are not U.S. citizens and that he's not currently eligible for Minnesota tuition rates and aid.
Loera said he is avoiding higher tuition by starting at Rochester Community and Technical College, but that he hopes to transfer to a state college or university after a year or two. He said it would be tough to afford without in-state rates and financial aid.
"An education will help me repay the state for what it's given me already," Loera said.