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NY Assembly Passes Bill to Offer Undocumented College Students Financial Aid

The New York State Assembly Monday again passed the Dream Act, which would open up financial aid to undocumented students who attend college in New York. But it faces an uphill battle making it out of the Republican-controlled state Senate and onto the governor's desk for signing this legislative session, which ends next week.

“I think it will be very difficult under this political climate, especially since it’s an election year,” state Assemblyman Ron Kim, one of 60 co-sponsors of the bill, told NBC News.

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DREAMers (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) listen to speakers during a "United we Dream," rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. Alex Brandon / AP

The Dream Act would change state law to allow the roughly 4,500 undocumented students who graduate from New York high schools each year to apply for state financial assistance for college. At present, state aid is available only to citizens and lawful permanent residents, as well as certain refugees, according to the bill memo.

California, Texas, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Washington already offer financial aid to undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Let’s make sure that this time, the Assembly’s passage counts by ensuring Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and the state Senate finally make the New York State Dream Act become a reality," New York Immigration Coalition executive director Steven Choi said in a statement.

RELATED: California DREAM Loan Program Opens to Undocumented Students

It’s unclear just how many Asian-American undocumented immigrants would qualify under the proposal. Kim, a Democrat whose Queens district is home to many Asian Americans, said he knows from personal stories of “hundreds, if not thousands” who would benefit.

The American Immigration Council estimated in 2012 that there were 11,275 Asian-American New Yorkers eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, an executive order signed by President Barack Obama the same year that temporarily removes the threat of deportation for undocumented immigrant children and also grants them authorization to work.

DACA requirements include being under the age of 31 as of 2012 and coming to the U.S. before turning 16. DACA recipients in New York are also prohibited from receiving state financial aid.

While this is the fourth time the Dream Act has passed the Democratic-led Assembly since 2013, it has failed to gain enough momentum to make it out of the Republican-controlled Senate. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo included the Dream Act in his state budget this year, at a cost of $27 million. But the Senate removed it, prompting the assembly to respond with legislation, Kim said.

Some in both legislative chambers have been critical of offering financial aid to undocumented students, arguing that it’s unfair to working-class families that take out costly college loans to pay for their children’s education. They say the money should instead be given to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Kim, however, said record amounts of funding have been allocated in the past several budgets for the New York State Tuition Assistance Program and the Higher Education Opportunity Program, which are both available to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

“We’re not taking away a cent from our regular programs that are supporting other students,” Kim said. “We’re just carving out an additional budget...to help these [undocumented] students to qualify so they can be part of the state scholarships.”

RELATED: DREAM Come True: New Program Funds College for Undocumented

The 2016 bill, sponsored by state Assemblyman Francisco P. Moya of Queens, would create a Dream Fund commission and Dream Fund, neither of which would receive state funding or aid. The commission, whose appointees would come from the executive branch, headed by the governor, and the Legislature, would raise money for the fund and establish standards for awarding the financial assistance.

The Dream Act would also require undocumented students receiving financial assistance to submit affidavits saying they have filed an application to legalize their immigration status or will do so as soon as they are eligible, the bill reads.

Undocumented children in the U.S. are allowed to attend free primary and secondary public schools, which cannot require proof of permanent residence, citizenship or a social security number for enrollment, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982. In New York, though, only five to 10 percent of undocumented students are able to get a college education because of financial burdens, according to a statement from Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars helping these students get to that point,” Kim said. “But when it matters the most, in terms of going to higher education, we turn around and say we don’t want to support you anymore — and that’s not right.”

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