CHICAGO (AP) — Illinois made it easier for illegal immigrants to pay for college when Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law Monday creating a privately funded college scholarship program.
"We say to all the people of our country and our state, we want everybody in and nobody left out," Quinn, a Democrat, told a packed auditorium at a high school in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago. "Education is the key to opportunity in a democracy."
The Illinois Dream Act creates a nine-member commission to establish scholarships for immigrant children with private donations, not taxpayer money. Quinn, who will appoint the commission members, was quick to personally pledge $1,000 to the fund.
The effort still requires fundraising before any scholarships can be awarded.
Immigrant children here legally and illegally can qualify if they attend an Illinois high school for at least three years and have at least one parent who immigrated to the United States.
Private scholarships are among the few ways that illegal immigrants can pay for college because they don't qualify for government financial aid. Illinois already offers in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants at public universities.
The new law also lets anyone with a Social Security number or taxpayer identification number to enroll in state-run college savings programs. It also requires high school counselors to provide college information to immigrant children.
Tania Unzueta, a 27-year-old graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago was ecstatic about the new law.
"It's been so frustrating to know undocumented young people who don't graduate from high school because they don't think they can go to college," said Unzueta, an illegal immigrant.
Some critics have complained the new law is misguided.
Republican State Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights voted against the measure. "Why are we setting up a state structure to handle private money. It doesn't make sense to me," he said.
Unzueta said she is lucky to have gone to college and on to graduate school, something that more people will now be able to do because of increased access to private scholarships under the law. But Unzueta, who has been in the United States since she was 10, said that still doesn't solve the problem of what illegal immigrants do after college because they are not legally allowed to work in this country.
"I have one more year to graduate and I don't know what I'm going to do next," she said.
Unzueta said she wants a federal Dream Act passed to provide a route to legal status for college students and service members brought to the country as children. Illinois' law has no impact on a person's immigration status.
Arianna Salgado, 18, of Melrose Park, who said she is recent high school graduate, worked with activist groups to get the new law passed. She said she already has private scholarship money to attend Dominican University in suburban Chicago in the fall where she plans to study political science.
"We deserve the same opportunities to continue with our higher education because we have the same dedication and commitment as our peers," said Salgado, an illegal immigrant.
Republican Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano of Elmwood Park thanked Latino lawmakers at the bill signing for their work to get the measure passed in Illinois' Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
"We have to offer people opportunities to help themselves and this piece of legislation is totally about just that," Saviano said.