Illegal immigrant students brought to this country as children deserve a path to citizenship and affordable higher education, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a visit to Arizona State University on Monday.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, joined three of Arizona’s Democrat congressmen — Reps. Ed Pastor, Harry Mitchell and Raul Grijalva — to rally support for efforts to increase federal financial aid.
The topic, however, turned toward the border. Pelosi pledged to move legislation that would improve citizenship and education opportunities for illegal immigrant students.
“This March, you will have an immigration reform act that will include the Dream Act,” Pastor said.
The legislation would allow illegal immigrants who graduate from high school in the U.S., have lived here for five years and arrived prior to turning 15, to attend college for in-state tuition.
Once enrolled, those students would be given six years of legal residence during which they must complete two years worth of college credit or military service to earn citizenship.
The act, first introduced in 2003, has lacked the support needed to pass both chambers of Congress.
If signed into law, it would effectively reverse Proposition 300, which Arizona voters approved last year. The proposition requires public colleges and universities to charge illegal immigrants out-of-state tuition, which at ASU is about triple the cost of in-state tuition.
The Democrats’ immigration reform package would be comprehensive and focus on border security and creation of a guest-worker program, Pelosi said.
As part of their platform for retaking Capitol Hill in the fall, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats argued that a college education should be affordable for all Americans.
“No more will you see legislation that comes to the floor that says we’re going to cut student assistance to give a tax cut to the wealthiest in the country,” Pelosi said.
In recent years, funding for federal financial aid has largely remained flat.
Last month, Congress voted for measures to halve the interest rate on federal loans to 3.4 percent and to boost the maximum Pell grant by $260.
In Arizona, the average student debt is just more than $17,000, according to the Arizona Board of Regents. And for the first time, a majority of students at the state’s public universities graduate with debt.
The next question for the Democrats becomes how to pay for their largess.
The above measures alone would cost tens of billions of dollars, according to various estimates.
In his 2008 budget proposal, President Bush proposes to increase Pell grants, provided to students based on family income, by cutting other financial aid programs.
Democrats have derided the proposal as “robbing Peter to pay Pell,” as Pastor put it Monday. Administration officials argue that the budget shifts money from inefficient programs to Pell, which is deemed highly effective.
Asked how she intends to pay to improve access to higher education, Pelosi said increasing the federal deficit is not an option.
“I wouldn’t start with ...rolling back tax cuts,” Pelosi said, “but that may be necessary.”