Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Dreamers watch the vote from the Senate gallery (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — A bipartisan agreement to give about 3,800 undocumented students in Connecticut the option to apply for financial aid sailed through the Senate Wednesday and is headed to the House.

The bill passed 30-5. Senators Len Suzio, Joe Markley, Eric Berthel, Tony Guglielmo, and Scott Frantz — all Republicans — voted against the measure.

The bill is modeled in part on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was created in 2012 to give temporary legal status to immigrants brought illegally into the United States by their parents or other relatives when they were children.

Sen. Beth Bye, a West Hartford Democrat who helped negotiate the bipartisan bill, said they were working on it when President Donald Trump announced he was ending DACA. A court has since ordered the program to continue for existing beneficiaries until legal challenges are resolved.

“We have to admit that the federal immigration system is broken,” Bye said.

In order to qualify for financial aid under the legislation, students have to have arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and can’t have a felony conviction.

Bye said they also have to sign an affidavit that says as soon as they are able they will apply for citizenship.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Beth Bye (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

“When immigration status is being considered, having a degree is often something taken into consideration,” Bye said. “So while students wait for Washington to get its act together, these students are at least moving forward in a way that when that logjam is broken they at least have a degree.”

Bye said at the end of the day these students believe education is so important that they’re willing to come forward at great risk to themselves and their families.

For years, since gaining the right to in-state tuition rates, Connecticut Dreamers have been coming to the state Capitol in their caps and gowns lobbying for access to financial aid. They don’t have access to federal financial aid because of their immigration status, so the institutional financial aid is the only pot of money they may be able to access outside of private scholarships.

As recently as last week, the students came to the Capitol to lobby during their spring break.

The students, some of whom have already graduated, held signs indicating how much they paid in tuition without receiving any financial help. Flanked by fellow college graduates, one student held a sign reading, “I paid $92,584 into the system.”

Najey Clavijo, an undocumented high school student from Danbury who is working 35 hours a week to help her mom pay their rent, said her dream is to study computer engineering.

“Today with the Senate vote, that dream came one step closer to becoming a reality,” she said following the vote.

“Offering financial aid to students regardless of their immigration status is another sign of our commitment to fairness and equality,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. It’s also a recognition that these young people are seeking to become educated and “they offer a great deal of potential to the state of Connecticut.

Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the bill is written in a way that most members of his caucus can support.

“Washington, D.C., in all respects, has let us down on immigration time and time again,” Fasano said.

He said education is an “equalizer,” and “this bill fixes that” for undocumented students.

Sen. Art Linares, a Westbrook Republican who has opposed similar legislation in the past, offered his support this year.

Linares said the DACA rules helped guide lawmakers to a compromise on the plan.

He applauded the Dreamers who continued to advocate for the legislation.

Linares, a Cuban-American, stressed that he wanted make sure they knew exactly who may receive funding.

“If they are undocumented and have a felony, they won’t have access to institutional aid. However, if they are a veteran and undocumented, they will have access to institutional aid,” he said.

Some of the people brought here illegally were brought by their parents against their own will, which Linares said should be a factor in lawmakers’ deliberations.

“I think that we’ve reached a really nice compromise,” Linares said.

The House has agreed to take up the bill this year.

“We’ve already agreed that we’ll bring it up for a vote,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said they need bipartisan support to pass it and as long as that support doesn’t evaporate then they will have the votes to pass it this year.

Efforts to pass the bill last year were stalled when a leading community activist and organizer with Connecticut Students For A Dream was charged with writing anti-Trump graffiti around the University of Connecticut campus. His arrest is alleged to have led to a critical loss of support from legislators and it prevented the bill from reaching the House.

Pressed on whether that was the reason the House didn’t raise the bill last year, Ritter would only say: “We didn’t have the votes last year.”

It’s one of the few bills that doesn’t have a fiscal impact.

“The bill results in no fiscal impact to the higher education constituent units as it does not alter the total amount provided for institutional financial aid,” according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis. “The bill does result in a potential redistribution of such aid among recipients.”

Parker Fiske and Bhumike Choudhary contributed to this report.