HARTFORD, CT — Trying to pass legislation to give immigrant students access to financial aid at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities has always been a toss-up issue, and the recent arrest of a member of a group leading the fight for the legislation may have added another roadblock.
Passage of the legislation looked likely until Eric Cruz-Lopez, a former student at the University of Connecticut, was charged May 7 with 103 counts of criminal mischief.
“It was one, very unfortunate incident that has put us all in jeopardy,” Carolina Bortello, who was at the state Capitol this week along with her sister, Camila and others, still trying to gather support for their cause.
“Our cause is still the right cause,” Carolina Bortello said. “We have 2,000 signed petitions. We will continue to lobby legislators.”
The Bortellos and Connecticut Students For A Dream continue to show up at the state Capitol day-after-day to advocate.
“The support we have is still overwhelming,” her sister Camila Bortello added. “We have been working on this for four years. One mistake shouldn’t wipe all that out.”
Without addressing the addressing the arrest of Cruz Lopez, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz last week said, “We do not have the votes for the Dreamers bill.”
One of those who supports the legislation, Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford, said Tuesday that arrest has become a “political nightmare.”
Noting that the Democrats in the House hold a 79-72 majority over the Republicans, Staneski added that the “Democrats have whipped up the necessary votes” for passage on less important bills, in her mind, than the Dreamer legislation.
There are actually two Dreamer bills — one in the Senate and one in the House — but the Senate bill won’t be called for debate if the House doesn’t have enough support to pass it.
Earlier during the session, the Higher Education Committee and Employment Advancement Committee forwarded both bills to their respective chambers. But neither the House or Senate has taken it up yet.
The Senate doesn’t want to raise the bill if it’s not going to pass in the House. No one will say whether it still has enough support to pass the Senate.
This the fourth year in a row that the 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 House never voted on it.
Proponents call it an issue of fairness and an “injustice” that undocumented immigrant students pay into a fund that other students can draw from to pay for their education, but they can’t.
Adam Joseph, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said, “granting undocumented students access to institutional aid from a fund into which they already pay is a smart investment. These talented and hardworking young adults will be a significant part of Connecticut’s economic future.”
Joseph added: “That’s why Senator (Martin) Looney has been a strong and consistent sponsor of this legislation. The Senate has already passed this legislation in two previous sessions without action in the House. It is critical that the House pass this bill before the Senate yet again runs the bill.”
At a press conference two weeks ago, Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, said an argument he hasn’t made before — a shrinking college population — is a reason to get behind the legislation this year.
“With projected declines in the college-age population for the foreseeable future, institutions of higher education in Connecticut are competing for an ever shrinking group of students,” Ojakian said. “Without the ability to offer institutional aid to undocumented students, our public institutions will be at a competitive disadvantage to our private counterparts, and will contribute to further enrollment declines.”
Ojakian said other states allow undocumented students to receive funds, including California, New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, and Washington.
The Office of Fiscal Analysis has reported these measures will have no fiscal impact on state or on the higher education system.
The proposal has the support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who submitted written testimony in support of the legislation during the public hearing phase.
“Education and career preparation are some of the best tools we have to combat poverty,” Malloy and Wyman said in a joint statement. “And, access to affordable higher education is one path into the middle class for millions across our country.”