Immigrant students living in Missouri who entered the U.S. illegally as children would be denied access to the state's A+ Scholarship under two bills that advanced Wednesday in the House and Senate.

Republicans said preventing the immigrants from claiming the benefit is necessary to protect resources for U.S. citizens, but Democrats have argued they are discriminatory.

At issue are students who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created by President Barack Obama in 2012 to stop the deportation of immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents. Missouri had about 6,000 to 7,000 K-12 such students in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Missouri bills would stop a Department of Higher Education rule set to take effect March 30 clarifying that those immigrant students can receive the A+ Scholarship, which is available to students who graduate from a Missouri high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average, good attendance and satisfy various other requirements.

But money for the A+ program already is strained, and could pay for all but one credit of students' tuition in the current spring semester, Higher Education Department spokeswoman Liz Coleman said.

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House bill sponsor Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick said granting the scholarship to immigrant students will "reduce benefits paid to Missouri citizens." The bill, approved 111-41 and now heading to the Senate, would prevent any state financial aid from going to those students and would require colleges and universities charge them the international rate of tuition.

"If they're allowed to receive these scholarships, it will be at the expense of Missouri citizens," the Shell Knob Republican said.

The House on Tuesday passed a budget proposal for next fiscal year that both allows the state to spend an additional $2 million on the A+ Scholarship and bans state money for aid for certain immigrants without legal status.

The Senate bill, which won initial approval by a voice vote Wednesday, is less sweeping and only adds the requirement that students who receive the A+ Scholarship be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. That measure needs a second Senate vote before it can move to the House.

Democrats said both bills hurt students who want an education and are here without legal permission through no fault of their own.

"We are enacting discrimination," Democratic Rep. Genise Montecillo of St. Louis said.

Montecillo also criticized a provision of the House bill that would expand the A+ Scholarship to students who study theology and divinity, which she said violates the constitution by promoting religion.

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