Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Audrey Camino-Jara, a sophomore at Norwalk Community College (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – Two bills that would give undocumented immigrant students access to financial aid at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities passed the Higher Education Committee and Employment Advancement Committee Wednesday.

The committee, with bipartisan support, approved both a Senate, and a House bill with identical language, in two separate votes in a meeting at the Legislative Office Building with many undocumented students sitting in the audience watching, and smiling in the audience.

The House bill passed 14-6 and the Senate bills passed 13-7. Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, voted in favor of the House bill and against the Senate bill.

The students were happy with the vote – but also realize the legislation still needs to be approved by the full House and Senate, and signed by the governor before becoming law.

“I’m very, very happy for me,” Audrey Camino-Jara, a sophomore at Norwalk Community College said after the vote. “Not only for me but for every other student who will benefit.”

This the fourth year in a row that the students – often called Dreamers –  are trying to get a bill that would give them access to financial aid at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities. Last year, they were able to get the Senate to approve a similar measure, but the bill got stuck between the two chambers, and the House never voted on it.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the committee, said while she is hopeful this is the year the legislation passes she “felt bad for the college seniors who have been fighting for this for four years.”

Those students, Bye explained, will be college graduates when and if the legislation finally becomes law.

Her fellow co-chair, Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Mansfield, said to him the vote in favor was a no-brainer.

“If you pay into these funds, you should be able to access these funds,” Haddad said.

Haddad said during a public hearing on the legislation a few weeks back while the bill didn’t make it last year that he hopes his fellow legislators feel an “increased moral imperative given what is happening in Washington that dictates to us that we ought to act.”

Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, the Republican co-chair of the committee, voted against the bill.

Linares the only Cuban American state Senator, has stated previously while he appreciates the open dialogue he’s been able to have with the students, but his view is that “we are a country of laws and those who are waiting for legal status should go through the process first.”

If they have a problem with obtaining U.S. citizenship then they can petition the federal government, Linares has said.

He has expressed concern that the legislation puts Connecticut in a position where it “runs the risk of losing federal funding.”

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, testified in favor of the legislation during the public hearing phase.

“The central mission of the institutions in the CSU system is to provide quality, affordable and accessible higher education to all students,” Ojakian said. “These two bills are an essential part in strengthening that mission and improving our ability to serve all our students equally.”

He said it’s an issue of fairness and called it an “injustice” that Dreamers pay into a fund that other students can draw from to pay for their education, but they can’t.

Ojakian said other states allow undocumented students to receive funds, including California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman submitted written testimony in support of the legislation.

“Education and career preparation are some of the best tools we have to combat poverty,” Malloy and Wyman said. “And, access to affordable higher education is one path into the middle class for millions across our country.”

They added that “To deny undocumented students access to affordable higher education goes against the very core of who we are. It is penny wise and pound foolish.”

Undocumented immigrant students, allies, and educators from around the state also gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday – and are planning to do so on Thursday – holding a series of events to try and build momentum for their cause.

“Institutional aid is student-generated funds that colleges set aside from tuition revenue to support students with demonstrated financial need,” Camila Bortoletto, campaign and policy manager for CT Students for a Dream, said. “Institutional aid is student funded, it is not taxpayer or state funded. The Afford To Dream Bill would simply equalize access to the current system of the set-aside funds.

Bortoletto added: “There is no fiscal impact to this legislation,  yet the impact it would have on individual students is life-changing, as it would allow them to attend and graduate from college. We have been fighting for the legislation for four years, the time is now for our Connecticut legislators to support this common sense solution.”