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New York Legislature Convenes

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, speaks to members of the state Senate during opening day of the 2019 legislative session in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

The Democratic-controlled state Legislature has achieved another goal: Extending state tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants.

State lawmakers on Wednesday passed the DREAM Act, a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to access state financial aid, including the Tuition Assistance Program, to pay for college tuition.

The legislation establishes the DREAM Fund, which would provide scholarships to students who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. It also allows undocumented immigrant families to participate in the state's 529 College Savings Program.

The DREAM Act is another bill that has been approved by the state Assembly in the past, but was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate. Until this year, Republicans controlled the Senate and determined which bills were considered in the chamber. 

With Democrats now in power, the DREAM Act's passage was one of the new Senate majority's top priorities. 

Supporters argued that the DREAM Act would not only benefit immigrant students, but it would help the state. State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, one of the bill's sponsors, said DREAMers contribute $115 million in state and local taxes every year. He noted that the cost of the bill would be $27 million annually, a fraction of what young immigrants contribute to the state's economy. 

"This is the right thing to do," he said. 

Republicans opposed the bill and accused Democrats of having misplaced priorities. During the floor debate, state Sen. Fred Akshar said he surveyed his constituents on the subject and found that 85 percent oppose the DREAM Act. Most of the respondents, he said, are struggling to afford college tuition for their children. 

State Sen. Rob Ortt, a western New York Republican, agreed. He believes Democrats are undermining federal law by extending tuition benefits to undocumented immigrants. He also thinks there will be a budgetary impact of implementing the law. 

"There's no question that this will increase costs for New Yorkers," he said, adding that it may be paid for through higher taxes or increased tuition at state colleges and universities. 

The Republicans' objections weren't enough to derail the legislation. In past years, GOP opposition prevented the bill from advancing in the state Legislature. But that's not the case this year now that Democrats control both chambers. 

The Assembly, as it has for nearly a decade, passed the DREAM Act with ease. Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, one of the bill's sponsors, shared her experience as an immigrant from the Dominican Republican. Her parents came to the U.S. because they believed in the American dream, she said. 

Without the DREAM Act, De La Rosa explained that undocumented immigrants are attending and graduating from high school, but many are unable to attend college because they lack access to financial assistance available to other students. 

"Denying these students financial aid is denying them the right to education," De La Rosa said. 

The state Senate also passed the DREAM Act by a wide margin. For many senators, even those who opposed the bill, the legislation served another purpose. 

This year, the DREAM Act was named in honor of the late state Sen. Jose Peralta. Peralta, a Queens Democrat, was known for his DREAM Act advocacy. 

Peralta died after suffering a heart attack in November. He was 47. 

State Sen. Joe Griffo, a Republican who opposed the DREAM Act, lauded Peralta. He referred to his former colleague as "an honorable man" and an "extraordinary public servant." 

Others echoed those sentiments. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins recognized members of Peralta's family, including his wife and children who were in attendance for the Senate session. 

"It is a dream for us to be able to crown the legacy of Senator Peralta in the presence of his wife and his family," Stewart-Cousins said before the DREAM Act passed the Senate. 

With the state Legislature's approval, the bill now heads to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his approval. He has supported the DREAM Act in the past and included it in his state budget proposals. 

Cuomo's office announced that the governor met with the Peralta family while they were in Albany for the DREAM Act votes. 

"As a key part of our Justice Agenda, we look forward to finally making it law for all New Yorkers this year, for Senator Peralta and the Dreamers," Cuomo said. 

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