Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Dreamers thank the House from the gallery (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT —A bill giving undocumented students access to financial aid is headed to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk.

The bill passed the House 91-59 after more than eight hours of debate and four failed Republican amendments. The Senate voted 30-5 last week in less than an hour.

Loud applause erupted from the House gallery after the vote total was announced.

Najely Clavijo, 17, who watched the debate from the House gallery, said she plans to stay in Connecticut to attend college now. The Danbury High School student who juggles school and works 35 hours a week to help her mother pay the bills said she wants to be a computer engineer. She said she was undecided about staying in Connecticut before Wednesday’s vote.

Jonathan Gonzalez, a senior at Southern Connecticut State University, said he won’t benefit from the legislation, but he’s excited for the future generations who won’t have to struggle as hard to obtain an education.

Under current Connecticut law, undocumented students, also called Dreamers, pay in-state tuition rates into the institutional aid fund at Connecticut colleges, but are unable to access those funds to help them lower the cost of their education. Without the ability to access federal loans and scholarships, these students pay the full amount of tuition.

Just last year, a similar motion passed the Senate before failing to garner enough votes to pass the House.

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.

Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

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.

The legislation stipulates that to qualify for tuition students must have come to the country before turning 16, without having a felony on their criminal record.

Rep. Gregory Haddad, D- Mansfield, co-chair of the Higher Education Committee, made a passionate pitch to his colleagues to support the undocumented students who were brought to this country as children.

“In their hearts and minds they are Americans,” Haddad said. “This is where they grew up. The vast majority of these students want to become U.S. citizens.They consider this to be their place of residence and home.”

One of the Republicans who backed the proposal is Rep. Pam Staneski, R-Milford.

“What I don’t understand is when we give these group of students access to colleges and they ask just to be allowed to have the same opportunity to draw from money that they have contributed to, that we say no,” Staneski said.

Staneski added the fact the Dreamers can’t receive funding is hurting Connecticut state-funded colleges.

“Students have a choice,” she said. “Private (colleges) are allowing them to be a part of this pool. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

That disadvantage some House members said may be contributing to the fact that Connecticut’s state-run college system student population is dwindling.

Another Republican supporter was Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Milford.

Smith said because the Dreamers “put money into a pot” they have a right to draw from that pot. He added that he would feel differently if the money being drawn was “taxpayer dollars but it is not, it is institutional dollars.”

But other Republicans didn’t see it the way Staneski and Smith did.

Rep. Joe Polletta, R-Watertown, said: “I really have a problem handing out money to anyone who is undocumented.”

Rep. Fred Wilms, R-Norwalk, said it’s an issue of fairness. He said if everyone pays into the pool and the pool is finite, then legal students may not receive some of these funds that they otherwise would have if the undocumented students were not able to qualify for the funds.

Wilms said the federal government should take action to help improve the immigration process.

The bill has no monetary impact on the state of Connecticut; it merely redistributes existing funds in the institutional aid pool. That’s according to the Office of Fiscal Analysis.

Republicans also pointed out during the debate that tuition is inflated to account for institutional financial aid. Tuition is about 20 to 30 percent more expensive as a result, Republicans argued.

One Republican amendment would have eliminated institutional aid for all state colleges.

In a statement following the vote, Malloy called the legislation “long overdue” and “commonsense.” 

However, “none of this is a substitute for much-needed federal legislation” Malloy added.

Parker Fiske contributed to this report.