Illegal-immigrant students and allies from across the state descended on the state capital last weekend to plan their next strategy in the fight for immigration reform.
Members of the California Dream Network, a coalition of college students advocating for access to higher education for illegal immigrants, joined forces during a three-day retreat in Sacramento to renew lobbying efforts for the California Dream Act.
The retreat marked the start of what is shaping up to be a pivotal year for illegal-immigrant students.
The Dream Act, now making its way through the Legislature, could be signed into law by early October. The bill would open doors to higher education by allowing illegal-immigrant students to tap scholarships and financial aid. Part of the law would be implemented in January.
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"This year is very, very significant," said Pablo Reyes, a Dream Network organizer at College of the Sequoias.
The Valley likely will be a hub of activity. Reyes, who moved to Hanford from Florida two months ago, is one of three Valley students who have emerged as vocal and ambitious leaders. Also, freshmen and new organizers at University of California at Merced are giving life to the Dream Act movement on that campus.
Reyes said students will be busy over the next month with rallies, and phone and email campaigns to pressure lawmakers to pass Assembly Bill 131, the second bill in the Dream Act.
The bill, which faces an Oct. 9 deadline, would allow illegal-immigrant students to apply for and receive state grants, university scholarships and fee waivers -- the same aid offered to legal residents.
Fresno City College student Raul Arciga said illegal-immigrant students are hit especially hard by fee increases because they can't access financial aid. He signed up for two classes this semester, but said he might have to drop them because he is struggling to pay for books and other expenses.
Arciga, who lives in Clovis, is an illegal immigrant, brought from Mexico as a child by his parents. "I feel so helpless," he said.
The Senate is expected to vote this week on AB 131, sponsored by Assembly Member Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. If the bill passes, it goes back to the Assembly for concurrence on the amendments before landing on the governor's desk by Sept. 9, the state's legislative deadline. Gov. Jerry Brown has a month to sign the bill into law.
The Legislature approved AB 130 earlier this year, which gives undocumented students access to private scholarships. With the governor's signature, that law would take effect in January. AB 131 would be implemented in January 2013.
Brown has raised concerns about the cost of the bill, which was previously estimated at $32.2 million. Earlier this month, at the governor's request, Cedillo's staff made some changes to AB 131 that would lower the cost by as much as $10 million, although estimates still are rough.
At the weekend retreat, students planned how to tie the Dream Act to job growth to win the support of business owners and more conservative lawmakers.
But without national immigration reform, most illegal-immigrant students won't be able to legally work in the country after they finish college -- which is why Valley students have their eyes on moving national legislation.
Reyes and Arciga have joined Fresno State's Alex Chavez to plan the Dream Network's most ambitious undertaking of the year -- a cross-country walk to raise support for the federal Dream Act, which would offer undocumented youths a path to citizenship.
They plan to walk from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., Reyes said, leaving in January.
They estimate they'll need $200,000 for the journey, which they're calling "Campaign for American Dream." So far, they've raised more than $1,000, Chavez said, "which is a little bit sorry, but we're just starting out."
The students expect the trek will take until the end of August, and Chavez said they would have to take a year off from school. In many ways, Chavez has replaced Fresno State alumnus and former student body president Pedro Ramirez as the college's Dream Act poster child.
A triple major entering his senior year, "school has always been my priority," Chavez said. But he added: "Advocating for the Dream Act and getting things done not just for myself but for others was much more important."