ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) – Supporters of a bill that would give New York students in the U.S. illegally access to state tuition assistance weren't giving it much of a chance in this election year, planning instead for a push in 2015.
But unforeseen support from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and more Democratic lawmakers has breathed new life into the state's proposed "Dream Act" and given hope to students who would otherwise be shut out of state financial aid.
"It's very frustrating to try and further your education and have so many obstacles in your path," said Marcy Suarez, a high school senior from Brentwood who was 7 when she crossed the Mexican desert to enter the United States.
Unlike the federal Dream Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for people that arrived in the country before the age of 16, the New York state Dream Act opens up state financial aid to students in the country illegally.
The proposal includes a budget appropriation of $25 million to open up Tuition Assistance Program money for such students at both public and private colleges, paying up to $5,000 a year for undergraduates at four-year institutions. Exactly how many would be eligible for the need-based assistance is unclear, but according to a report issued by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, 8,300 such students in the CUNY and SUNY systems would qualify.
"Evidence of the economic benefits of the Dream Act are indisputable," Marti Adams, a spokesman for de Blasio, said last week. "We don't need to think this further. The Legislature needs to give these students the support they need to succeed."
Ever since it was first introduced three years ago, opponents have argued that using taxpayer money to fund tuition assistance for people in the country illegally takes opportunity and funds away from students who are citizens. New York is among 16 states that already allow those students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
Prospects for the immigrant financial aid bill remain uncertain in the Senate, where the new backing from four members of the Independent Democratic Conference leaves it still five votes short. Four other Senate Democrats have yet to publicly weight in on the bill, which passed easily in the Democrat-controlled Assembly last year.
Sen. Bill Perkins, one of those four Democrats, was the Senate sponsor of the Dream Act in 2011. Perkins didn't return calls seeking comment on his stance on the since-amended version.
Advocates for the Dream Act say they hope to convince Republican Sens. Martin Golden, Lee Zeldin and Andrew Lanza to back the legislation. Golden said he doesn't support the Dream Act, but would back a "Dream Fund" to provide scholarships through private sources. Zeldin and Lanza didn't return calls seeking comment.
But getting the 32 votes needed for passage is just one hurdle.
Sen. Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, and Sen. Jeff Klein of the IDC can block a bill from reaching the floor. Democrats fear they will have the votes needed for passage, but will be blocked from a floor vote by Skelos.
Skelos didn't respond to requests for comment. He said last year he was open to a Dream Fund, but no taxpayer funding. A Klein spokesman did not signal the senator's feeling on the bill either way.
But Sen. Ruben Diaz told The Associated Press that Republicans aren't the main obstacle in the way of the Dream Act. He blamed other Hispanic legislators who publicly support the bill and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who he said told supporters to wait on the bill because Republicans won't allow a floor vote.
Sponsors of the bill and a Cuomo spokesman denied that allegation.
Assemblyman Francisco Moya, sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said that conversations with Cuomo have been positive and he has not gotten any signal from Cuomo to stall on the measure.
"We are moving full-steam ahead with our efforts to bring the Dream Act to the floor and see it signed into law this year," Moya said.
Cuomo has said he would sign the bill if it passes the Senate, but disappointed Hispanic legislators and advocates when he didn't include the Dream Act in his State of the State speech or the executive budget.
"We see our own governor stalling our efforts," said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. "But there's a significant wave and push coming from New York City by de Blasio for the governor."
In the same vein, Sen. Jose Peralta, sponsor of the Senate bill, said that it was a plus that the mayor has been supportive, but it hasn't moved the needle with the governor.
This past week, Washington state lawmakers passed its version of the Dream Act. Once signed into law, Washington would join California, Texas and New Mexico in extending state tuition aid to students in the country illegally.