Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Saturday allowing undocumented immigrant college students access to public financial aid, marking California's relatively liberal ground in a bitter row over immigration nationwide.
The California Dream Act allows undocumented students who came to the country before age 16 and attended California high schools access to public financial aid, including Cal Grants. Those students already are eligible for in-state tuition, and Brown in July signed a companion measure affording them access to private financial aid.
"Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking," Brown said in a prepared statement. "The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us."
Brown, a Democrat, supported the act during last year's gubernatorial campaign, and his signature was all but certain. He had negotiated amendments to the bill, Assembly Bill 131, to reduce costs, excluding graduates of technical and adult schools and delaying implementation until January 2013.
But anticipation was high, and news spread among students and young people via Twitter and text message within minutes of Brown's announcement.
"It's amazing," said Maria Gomez, 26, an illegal immigrant who moved with her family from Mexico when she was 8 and graduated with a master's degree in architecture from UCLA in June. "We're all ecstatic."
The bill, by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, was passed by lawmakers on partisan lines. Republicans said the measure would encourage illegal immigration, and they objected to the cost, estimated at $23 million to $40 million annually.
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, said the bill would force citizens to compete with undocumented immigrants for public resources.
"I think that it is perhaps the biggest mistake that Governor Brown has ever made," he said, "other than unionizing public employees."
Donnelly set up a website headlined, "Stop the Nightmare Act," and he pledged to launch a referendum campaign.
Brown's signature comes amidst tension nationwide about immigration, most recently over strict new laws in Georgia and Alabama. Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced it would suspend deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who aren't a danger to public safety, including people who immigrated as young children and are in school.
Cedillo said in a prepared statement that Brown had "given hope and opportunity to thousands of current and future students and their families," his action sending a "message across the country that California is prepared to lead the country with a positive and productive vision for how we approach challenging issues related to immigration."
In California, where Latinos have become a prominent part of the electorate, "the politics here are just different," said Kevin Johnson, an immigration policy expert and dean of the UC Davis School of Law.
Fervor over immigration in states where it is a more recent phenomenon, he said, is "sort of a reaction to immigrants in a tough economic climate, in an effort to really save money, save resources, save jobs, and find a culprit for what's going on."
Brown signed the bill on the eve of a deadline tonight to act on a raft of pending bills. He signed the act without public ceremony, in contrast to when he signed the companion measure in Los Angeles in July.
"Our future is uncertain if we neglect those children," Brown told a cheering crowd in a library at Los Angeles City College at the time. "But it's absolutely abundant if we invest in their education, their child care, their future, their neighborhoods."
Undocumented immigrants account for perhaps 1 percent of students in California's three college systems, but financial aid for those students has long been a charged issue. Brown's Republican predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed similar legislation.
The bill's signing followed by almost exactly one year a gubernatorial debate in Fresno in which the subject provided one of the more memorable moments of the campaign. When a undocumented Fresno State student asked the candidates about immigration, Brown said of his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, "She wants to kick you out of this school because you are not documented, and that is wrong morally and humanly."
Brown said, "I'm going to treat everybody, whether they're documented or not, as God's child, and my brothers and sisters."
The student, Adriana Sanchez, 23, went on to graduate with honors and is now a graduate student at the university.
Asked about Brown's approval of the measure, she said: "He kept his promise."