Christine Stuart file photo

Connecticut Dreamers cheered Senate approval Wednesday of a bill that gives them access to financial aid at public colleges and universities.

The bill passed 21-13 after a two-hour debate over how students are prioritized to receive financial aid and whether undocumented students are as deserving of access to financial aid as legal U.S. citizens.

Connecticut lawmakers passed a law back in 2011 allowing undocumented students, also known as Dreamers, to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public universities. The group has continued its fight for financial aid at these schools.

These public universities are required to set aside 15 percent of tuition for institutional aid, which means these Dreamers who are paying tuition are already contributing to the type of financial aid they are seeking.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year but never got called for a vote in the House.

This year’s bill doesn’t require the undocumented students to fall under the federal government’s definition for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but broadens it to all undocumented students.

“Many of these students have lived in our state for virtually their entire lives; they are our neighbors and our children’s friends and classmates,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. “This is a smart investment in talented and hardworking Connecticut students who will be a significant part of Connecticut’s economic future. This bill represents the next step along this path towards equity.”

Looney asserted that students who earn their degrees in Connecticut are more likely to stay and build their career in the state and contribute to Connecticut’s economy.

“These young people are really American in every sense, except for the accident of their birth and the circumstances they were brought into this country,” Looney said.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he was struggling with how he was going to vote on the legislation and was listening intently to the debate.

“There are resources we have to deal with and they’re limited,” Fasano said.

He said students in Connecticut are frustrated with the level of debt their incurring in order to get an education. He said the pool of financial assistance is decreased by the number of people in the pool.

“So how do you prioritize without sounding like you don’t care for people?” Fasano said. “And yet, how do you hope for the American dream for everybody and deny people?”

Fasano eventually voted against the legislation.

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said 986 letters of support were entered into the record on behalf of the bill, indicating strong public support.

“Given the fact that these students — through their own tuition payments — are subsidizing all students with their institutional aid, it is only fair and just that they be able to have access to it too,” Bartolomeo said. “And remember that every one of these students has signed an affidavit that they are on a path to citizenship. This bill helps them to become contributing citizens and higher wage earners.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington currently allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid.

Connecticut Students for a Dream, who have advocated for the legislation, will rally on the north steps of the state Capitol at 1:30 p.m. today.

“This is the most important date of our campaign as we fight for equal access to institutional aid,” Alison Martinez, an organizer with the group and a University of Connecticut student, said. “It is time to put a stop to this all aid [and] no pay system that exploits immigrant students in Connecticut.”