Dozens of times a day, in meeting rooms all over the state capitol, this is what you hear. Lawmakers take turns sitting in front of a committee and pitching their bills. Their colleagues ask questions, and then take a vote. Committee votes are not that big a deal. If the bill doesn’t get enough yes votes, the sponsor can bring it back later. If it passes, that just means it’s cleared to move on to the full House or Senate. Very rarely does a simple committee vote end with sustained applause and cheers.
What you’re hearing is a room full of dreamers -- accidental immigrants, brought into the U.S. as young children, illegally, usually by their own parents. I made this recording almost a year ago, and these dreamers were applauding legislation designed to help them pay for college.
Under current law, public universities in Illinois are prohibited from providing grants, scholarships, work study jobs, and most forms of financial assistance to undocumented immigrants.
“I think if we use examples, might kind of help illustrate this a little bit better…” Senator Bill Cunningham, a Democrat from Chicago, tells the committee. “So my daughter’s a senior in high school. She’s going to attend a state university next year. And I know that she’s smarter than I was at that age. She got a good score on her ACT. So the university she’s going to is going to give her $1,000 tuition waiver because she reached a certain level. My understanding is… that a classmate of hers who is undocumented and got the same score on the ACT as she did would not be eligible for that tuition waiver right now. So another waiver my daughter qualifies for is because she got good grades. There’s a $2,000 tuition waiver for that too, that she qualifies for but that one of her classmates that is undocumented wouldn’t qualify for. So that’s $3,000 in incentives, that lowers the tuition bill we’re going to have to pay next year that we’re eligible for but that a student who got the same grades and the same scores as my daughter wouldn’t get.”
Dreamers aren’t the only people pushing this legislation; Illinois’ nine public universities are too, as does the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
“Yes, we support this bill. We (filed a witness slip) in support of the bill. We’ve always been in support of the bill,” Candace Mueller, director of external relations for IBHE, told the committee.
Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, asked Mueller to confirm what the students had testified before the committee. “My earlier question about whether a public university could currently offer scholarships or tuition waivers to an undocumented student -- is that true that it can only be done with private dollars?”
“That is my understanding,” Mueller said. “I worked with a fine student leader who actually was the chair of our IBHE student advisory committee, who attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and he was an undocumented student who’d been a transfer student from Elgin Community College and he was denied any opportunity to apply for any additional funding. But he had financial needs.
“And there just was not any funds available for the university to offer him to apply for — not to automatically get, but to at least be eligible to be considered for.”
Despite approval in that committee last year, and even passage in the Senate, that measure died in the House. This year, however, it’s been revived thanks to State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth — a Democrat from Peoria. She persuaded members of the Latino caucus (the original sponsors of the bill) to add a paragraph to include another group shut out of financial assistance — students who have been convicted of drug-related offenses.
“Drug convictions are the only convictions that prevent an individual from being able to advance their education at the higher education level,” she says. “The reason why I think that’s an important distinction is because an individual who is convicted of rape, murder — those individuals have the ability to get financial aid. The same aid that we’re trying to give access to non-violent drug offenders.
So if you’re convicted of rape, you’re allowed to get financial aid?
“Technically, yes,” Gordon-Booth says.
But if you’re convicted of having a few marijuana joints?
“You are discriminated against and you are not allowed to get assistance from that university,” she says.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the form necessary to obtain a Pell grant — requires students to report all drug convictions. If a student has a conviction during a time when they’re receiving financial aid, they’re automatically disqualified from receiving aid for the next few years. And since Pell is used as the benchmark for most need-based aid, if you don’t qualify for Pell, you’re pretty much out of luck. Drug offenses are the only crimes to carry this extra punishment.
“Let’s take this trip down memory lane,” Gordon-Booth says. “We have all become aware of what happened during the war on drugs, and the kinds of penalties that were put on the books during that era.”
The fact that a non-violent drug offense is the only crime that can disqualify a student from tuition waivers and other forms of financial aid seems …
“Racist?” Gordon-Booth says. “This is a relic from the drug war.”
Last session, when the bill was limited to “dreamers” (students protected by federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law), Gordon-Booth wasn’t so visible in her support of the legislation. But eventually, she and Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) teamed up.
“This has been ongoing for almost two years,” Gordon-Booth says. “I made it very clear that I was willing to support her legislation. I thought her legislation was important. But I also shared with her that it was incredibly important to me that this be an inclusive bill.”
Their effort also serves as an example of a rare “black and brown coalition” initiative.
“It’s a powerful statement,” Gordon-Booth says, “to have a Hispanic legislator from Chicago and an African-American legislator that just happens to be from downstate Illinois — I think that it’s important for people to see that we can work together.”
A word about what this legislation would not do: It wouldn’t cost any state dollars, because the aid would be only institutional-based aid. It wouldn’t include MAP grants — the Monetary Awards Program that helps pay tuition for low-income students. It wouldn't apply to community colleges or private institutions. It wouldn't affect a significant percentage of students, because DACA students total about 1,500 statewide, and drug offenders have been estimated to total 75-100 (real numbers are difficult to obtain, since many students with drug convictions don't bother to apply for aid). It wouldn't require schools to offer aid; it would merely give the schools that option.
Last week, the measure cleared one committee and moves on to the House floor.