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CNY Lawmakers Split on Merits of NYS Dream Act

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Karen DeWitt
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WXXI News

There are differing opinions from Central New York state lawmakers on the value of the Dream Act that passed the legislature this week.  The measure sets aside $27 million in tuition assistance for undocumented students who attend and graduate high school in New York.  Senator Bob Antonacci voted no…

"We've got young people with mountains of student loan debt.  We've got families who can't send their own kids to college.  To have taxpayer money used to pay for illegals' education is misplaced."

Some of those concerns aren't lost on Assemblymember Al Stirpe.  He says he voted "no" in the past because constituents complained they were taking out hefty loans to pay for college.

"To be honest with you, this was the first time I was able to vote 'yes' on the Dream Act.  The reason is we have  focused on middle class kids, too."

He says state has established the Excelsior Scholarship program to help address that very dilemma.  Stirpe says there’s no reason to abandon undocumented students once they graduate.

"We've heard stories from lots of people, especially teachers, who have had kids in their classes who were good students but ended up not being able to got college at all because they would have had to pay for the whoole thing themselves."

Stirpe says the one-time, $27 million allocation is small when compared to the more than a billion dollars spent on the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP every year.  Still, Senator Antonacci says the Dream act is another unsustainable program that is a reaction to a federal immigration issue.

"This constant attack on the federal government is going to ruin the state in the long run.  We can't support some of these programs that we're passing.  In my three weeks in the senate, I have not seen one bill signed by the governor that actually reduced the cost of education or the cost of living in New York State for our middle class families."

Antonacci says it’s unfortunate that children brought to this country illegally are being used as political footballs.  He’d rather see a concerted effort to fix the broken immigration system.

RE-CAPPING PASSAGE IN THE LEGISLATURE

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Credit Matt Ryan / NY Now
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NY Now
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie speaks at a packed press conference Wednesday. Joining him are the children of the late Sen. Jose Peralta, who died suddenly in November at age 47.

On Wednesday, the New York State legislature approved the Dream Act, that would offer college aid for children of undocumented immigrants. But they stopped short of acting on a measure to offer driver’s licenses to immigrants in New York without documentation.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, at an announcement packed with young immigrants seeking to go to college,  speaking just before the vote, celebrated the measure’s expected success.

Today we will pass the Dream Act for the ninth and  final time,” Heastie said as the crowd cheered.

Unlike in past years, when Republicans in the State Senate blocked the bill, Democrats who now lead that chamber also approved the measure, and Governor Andrew Cuomo is also a supporter.

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz  was an active member of the Dreamer movement before she was elected to the state Assembly last fall.

Cruz came to the US with her mother when she was a child, to escape the drug wars in Columbia. She overstayed her Visa and was undocumented for 13 years, until she became a citizen when she married her high school boyfriend. She became a labor and immigration lawyer.  She says the law is one step towards eliminating the discrimination that undocumented immigrants face.

Our parents have contributed millions of dollars into the New York state economy, and we have contributed millions of dollars into the New York state economy,” Cruz said. “Yet we are not seen as human because we don’t have a piece of paper. That’s not fair.”

The Dream Act was renamed the Jose Peralta New York State Dream Act, after the late Senator who died suddenly of complications from acute leukemia at the age of 47 last November.  Peralta, a Democrat from Queens, was a tireless backer of the Dream Act.  He even joined the now- defunct Independent Democratic Conference in hopes of advancing the measure in the Senate. But that proved his political undoing, and he lost his seat in a primary last September.   

His wife, Evelyn Peralta, attended the announcement, and witnessed the vote, along with her children. She says the issue was a “labor of love” for her late husband.

Today my husband’s dreams become our reality,” Peralta said. “The spirit of my husband is alive in this room today.”

GOP members in both houses voted against the bill.

Senator Robert Ortt, a Republican who represents a district in the Buffalo –Niagara Falls region,   says the $27 million in college aid to undocumented immigrants is not fair to middle class New York residents who are struggling with college costs. He says many of his constituents hold large student loan debts.

“They not only have to struggle to pay off their loans,” Ortt said. “But they also know that their dollars are going to pay for illegal immigrants. When we can take care of every American citizen who is here legally and who has played by the rules, and paid into the system, then we can talk about those who are not."

The Senate also voted to also raise the family income eligibility for the state’s Tuition Assistance Program from  $80,000 to $95,000 a year.

The Assembly did not take up the measure.  Assembly Speaker Heastie says it will be discussed as part of the budget.

Immigrants’ rights groups are also seeking access to drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants.  The sponsor of the Dream Act in the Assembly, Carmen De La Rosa, says the measure is more than just a “box” checked off the agenda, and more needs to be done.

We must make sure that a driver’s license bill is passed,” De La Rosa said. “This is about an immigrant community in New York State that needs protections.”

That bill was not voted on Wednesday. Speaker Heastie says his democratic members plan to discuss the issue soon.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.