Bill gives aid to undocumented students involved in student governments

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Saturday requiring UC, CSU and community college student government bodies to pay for stipends, reimbursements or benefits for the service of students, regardless of their immigration status.

The bill — authored by Assemblymember Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens — will ultimately allow undocumented students within student governments access to the same in-state college tuition grants and scholarships as legal residents of California who participate in student governments, including Cal Grants.

The measure, called AB 844, was signed on the same day as the second part of the California DREAM Act, which granted undocumented students access to state financial aid.

“Student leaders are democratically elected by their peers and are entitled to equitable treatment for their service regardless of their legal status,” Lara said in a press release. “These students pay student fees just like every other student, and thus, should be entitled to equal treatment.”

After passing in the state assembly on party lines last August with a vote of 50-23, AB 844 was sent to Brown’s office for his signature. The measure will go into effect Jan. 1, 2012.

Julia Juarez, director of communication for Lara, explained that the idea for the bill was born when the president of the student government at CSU Fresno decided to reject his stipend because he was undocumented and did not want to cause a controversy.

“The new law simply makes it clear that if you are elected into a student government position, you will be treated equally,” she said. “If the president of a student government at a particular school gets a stipend for their service, an undocumented student will now also be eligible for that stipend.”

But this equal treatment is controversial because undocumented students now have more scholarship and grant opportunities and ultimately may pay considerably less than legal students from other states, according to Republican assembly members.

“AB 844 allows people who are in the country illegally to receive college aid and special financial breaks,” said Assemblymember Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, in a statement. “At the same time students are being turned away from classes, and citizens are going through what history will record as the second great depression.”

Assemblymember Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said she disapproves of the bill, as well as of the California DREAM Act, because she does not believe in treating people who are here illegally equally to those who are here legally.

Ju Hong, an undocumented UC Berkeley senior and CalSERVE senator, said he is personally affected by the new law. He said he thinks this movement will open doors for more immigrants to pursue higher education and engage in political systems.

He added that many students who have not had the opportunity or the financial resources to attend leadership development conferences will now have the same opportunities for involvement as their documented peers.

“If I were to be an executive officer in the ASUC, I would not be able to get their stipends or fee waivers because I do not have a social security number,” Hong said. “There were a lot of barriers getting in the way of ASUC resources, but because of this bill, I will have the same benefits as any other student.”