A bill allowing undocumented students in California to use public funds to help pay for college is quickly moving through Sacramento, but cost may be an issue if and when it crosses Gov. Jerry Brown's desk next month.

A Brown spokeswoman said the administration supports the general principal behind AB 131, but it will take a long hard look at the bill considering the deep fiscal challenge of a $26 billion budget gap.

AB 131 is the second of a two-bill package referred to as the California DREAM Act, which is aimed at getting financial aid for college students who entered the country illegally. The first bill, AB 130, allows undocumented students access to financial aid from private donations to public colleges and universities and was signed into law last month.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said AB 131 is the more difficult for Brown of the two because of the use of public funds.

"Gov. Brown seems to have made his broader philosophical decision on the question of providing support for students who are in the country illegally," Schnur said. "Now he's got to decide whether he can afford it. It's a much more difficult decision than the first one."

Still, if Brown decides to veto for economic reasons, it might not have much political downside, Schnur said.

"The opponents by and large are not going to be Jerry Brown supporters anyway and most the supporters of the bill are probably not going to switch sides before the next election. If he does decide to veto the second bill, he can remind the bill's supporters that he signed the first one."

Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna, agreed Brown may have some leeway.

"I think he still has considerable credibility among Hispanic voters so he has some latitude on this," Pitney said.

Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown (Associated Press)

The bill's author, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said there's about $20 million to $35 million available for financial aid for the students -- about 1 percent of the $3.5 billion in funds set aside for students in public education.

"I believe, as the governor does, these people are part of our future," Cedillo said. "Their immigration status is ultimately going to change through marriage, or some type of immigration reform. The only question is, have we prepared them to be productive, effective, and constructive members of our society."

Opponents of the legislation said the bill disenfranchises legal resident students in a time of deep fiscal difficulty for the state.

"For Sacramento lawmakers to use our tax dollars to fund the higher education for students who are in the United States illegally, is reprehensible," said Raymond Herrera, founder and president of the Claremont-based anti-illegal immigration group We the People. "Precious tax dollar funding should go exclusively to American citizen college students or legal resident college students, not illegal aliens."

Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, announced he would file a referendum against the bill if it's approved.

"AB 131, the second part of the California `DREAM Act,' is a nightmare for citizens," Donnelly said. "Students are already struggling to pay increased tuition and many cannot even get into the classes they need, but the Legislature continues to pretend we can afford this entitlement. The simple truth is, everyone including the governor knows we can't."

Proponents of the bill say AB 131 would benefit the state economically and helps solve a complex problem.

"We know there are thousands of students who came to this country as a result of being brought by their parents," said Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American and Chicano studies at Pomona College. "They've gone through grammar and high school, and are poised to attend college. They've confronted financial difficulties that have impeded their ability to attend schools. They're unable to get legal work. I think this is a humane solution."

Tinker Salas said the move would also help the economy in the long run. 

"I think any effort to improve the educational achievement of students in California undoubtedly will improve their competitive skills and will be a benefit to the state," Tinker Salas said.

Nancy Coolidge, coordinator of Financial Support for the University of California, said that, prior to court rulings and federal legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, undocumented students had been able to get public financial aid for college if they could show residency.

"What's happening now with AB 131 is the state is in a scalpel-like way going in and restoring specific limited benefits to undocumented students to show they are California residents."

Schnur said new polling data has shown increasing willingness by California voters to oppose withholding state services to undocumented immigrants, compared to when voters decided to deny the use of public services to undocumented immigrants through Prop. 187 in 1994. A federal court overturned Prop. 187, and Gov. Grey Davis stopped appeals.

"The electorate numbers are almost an exact even split which signifies a very marked shift in recent years," Schnur said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Neil via email, or call him at 909-483-9356.