(Photo: Shutterstock) (Photo: Shutterstock)

State legislators in Albany voted to expand opportunities for undocumented immigrants by offering state tuition assistance to those individuals on Wednesday, as lawmakers also hinted at further progressive immigration reforms passing in New York over the next several months.

Some of those reforms, including one that would prohibit federal immigration officers from entering state courts with the intention of taking an undocumented immigrant into custody, appear to have gained momentum this year after Democrats took control of both houses in the state Legislature.

The bill, called the Dream Act, would allow undocumented immigrants to apply to scholarships from scholarship funds and the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, which offers funds for low- and middle-income New York residents to pay for college. The program, according to the bill’s sponsors, is expected to cost about $27 million.

The bill has been long opposed by Republicans in the Legislature who have argued that state government should not have a hand in helping undocumented immigrants attend college. They said as much after the bill passed in the Senate.

“While millions of New Yorkers struggle with crushing student debt, I can only imagine their disbelief when they find out that their hard-earned tax dollars will be going toward the higher education costs for individuals knowingly breaking federal law,” said Sen. Robert Ortt, R-Niagara.

The bill’s sponsors have rebuffed that argument, pointing to the total size of the entire state budget—more than $160 billion—compared to the expected cost of the program, which is estimated to be about $27 million. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, likened the bill to the state’s persistent opposition to the federal government’s immigration policies.

“While the administration in Washington is committed to putting up walls, the New York State Assembly is committed to breaking them down,” Heastie said before the bill passed the Assembly.

The legislation passed largely among party lines in the Legislature, with support mostly from Democrats. Those lawmakers also see the Dream Act as a precursor to more immigration-related legislation to come this year.

Consider a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain state drivers licenses, sponsored by Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx. Sepulveda was also the sponsor of the Dream Act.

The legislation would allow individuals in New York to apply for a driver license regardless of their citizenship, and would also prevent the personal information of those residents from being shared with federal law enforcement officers.

Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa, D-Manhattan, said she expects to see the Legislature tackle more bills related to immigration this year. She supports Sepulveda’s bill on driver licenses.

“This is not just a box we are checking off on our agenda,” De La Rosa said. “Today is simply one step in that direction for justice for immigrants in New York state.”

A bill that would ban federal immigration officers from entering state courts without a warrant to make a civil arrest, which could result in that individual’s deportation, is also on the table, and it has a good chance of becoming law this year.

The bill was first introduced by Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, D-Nassau, in the final weeks of last year’s legislative session. It had little to no chance of passing then, because Republicans who controlled the Senate opposed the measure.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had issued an executive order earlier last year barring federal immigration officers from making a civil arrest in any state facility without a warrant. Solages said she wants to codify those protections into state law and extend them to the state’s courts, since a future governor could have a different position.

“We need to put it in statute,” Solages said. “We need to make sure that, no matter where you are in New York state, that the local courts abide by the rules.”

This year, the bill has a powerful ally in the Senate. Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, is sponsoring the bill in the chamber. He chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which typically reviews legislation that will impact the state court system. The bill, which Hoylman only signed onto this week, has been referred to the Senate Codes Committee.

Solages said she’s optimistic about the bill’s future, given the additional time they have this year to push for the proposal and the new composition of the Senate.

“We want to make sure we protect the judicial system for all New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status,” Solages said. “We’re confident this year that we can get it done. Last year, we had a late start, plus we had the challenge of the Republican Senate.”

The proposal also was included in the governor’s executive budget proposal unveiled earlier this month, which means that it could ultimately end up in negotiations centered around the state’s spending plan. That budget, which is due at the end of March, is typically used by lawmakers as a catchall for legislation important to the governor and legislative leaders.

When asked about the bill, Heastie said he hadn’t discussed it with the members of his conference to develop a unified position but that they plan to talk about it at some point.

“I want people to be very clear, the Democratic Assembly stands with immigrants,” Heastie said.


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