OLYMPIA, Jan. 31.—Some thought it would never happen, but on Friday, the Senate swallowed hard and took one of the toughest votes of the last few years – for a measure that provides public college financial aid for the children of illegal immigrants.
The Senate voted 35-10 for the measure it prefers to call the ‘Real Hope Act.’ It is different than previous versions, commonly called the ‘Dream Act,’ because this bill actually provides money to make the program a reality. “No more dreams – this is real hope,” said sponsor Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. Senate Bill 6523 provides some $5 million for college financial aid programs for immigrant students, enough to finance college-need grants for some 800 to 1,200. It is expected to handily pass the House, which has approved a similar measure twice in the last year.
And there is quite a story behind it – a dramatic reversal in sentiment in the Senate, where conventional wisdom had it that the bill was going nowhere. The measure had been the subject of protests and speeches and fist-shaking political denunciations of Republican obstructionism. Yet leaders of the largely-Republican Majority Coalition left all Olympia slack-jawed when, after soul-searching and internal debate, they decided to permit a vote on the Senate floor.
Opinions within the caucus remain sharply divided, as demonstrated by the fact that 10 Republican members voted no and four others were absent for the vote. But Senate leaders said sympathy for the students won them over and it was time to let the bill move forward. The 12 members of the Majority Caucus who voted yes were joined by a unanimous vote from the 23 Senate Democrats. “We are not worried about the politics,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina. “We wanted to solve a problem.”
What happened in the Senate might prove the old adage – you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar. A different group of Latino leaders worked the issue this year. When advocates stopped treating lawmakers as adversaries, they finally got somewhere.
Seemed Like Wedge Issue in the Making
Last year – when backers still called it the Dream Act – the measure seemed like a classic wedge issue in the making. Leading the charge last year was the activist group One America, technically a non-partisan immigrants’-rights organization, but one that is perceived as firmly in the progressive camp. Public funding for services for the fast-growing non-citizen population has always been a difficult question for Republicans, tinged as it is with overtones of the greater national debate over immigration reform. And around the statehouse, among Republicans who tried to reach out, the word was that One America seemed less interested in passing a bill than in creating an issue that would dissuade Latinos from voting in the R column. Complained one, “I tried talking to them, but they weren’t interested in working with us.”
To many the bill seemed like gun control and abortion rights – issues that are raised every session, more to provide fodder for campaign arguments and to influence particular groups of voters, and less because of the urgent need for legislation. Under Democratic leadership, the House passed the bill last year, but in the Senate the bill didn’t get a hearing. So the usual charges were sounded; Democrats thundered about Republicans who would not permit a vote on a bill favored by the majority of the Senate. Entire Facebook threads were devoted to invective. But it was never quite so black and white. All politics aside, the tearful stories of the students themselves, unable to afford college without help, touched hearts on the Republican side of the aisle. Worth noting is the fact that when the bill came to the floor of the House last year, more than half the Republican members, 22 in all, joined the 55 Democrats in voting yes 77-20.
Yet as recently as the opening day of this year’s session, the measure seemed headed the same fate in the Senate this year as last. The House took another vote and passed the bill again, 71-23, but key players in the Majority Coalition said at the time the measure was unlikely to be a priority. What made Friday’s vote in the Senate doubly remarkable, for experienced observers of legislative custom, was that the 12 yes votes from coalition members did not represent a majority of its 26 members. That made the vote highly unusual – usually the sentiment of the majority of a caucus determines whether a vote will be permitted. Something out of the ordinary was at work. So what happened?
A Quiet, More Thoughtful Effort
The biggest difference this time out seems to be the way advocates approached the issue. The lead role was played by the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a group formed in the year 2000 to promote youth educational programs. Politics is the last thing the group has in mind, said director Ricardo Sanchez. Back in 2003, the group convinced lawmakers to pass a bill granting lower in-state tuition rates to the children of non-citizen Washington residents. At that time, state-supported financial aid seemed too much for lawmakers to swallow, Sanchez said; his group didn’t begin pressing the case for the Dream Act until five years ago. By that time there were other Latino organizations, and they worked together in sort of a loose-knit coalition. But this year LEAP and Latino business community leaders worked the Senate on their own.
“People came up to me, especially some of the students, asking when are we going to do a march? When are we going to do a protest? When are we going to go and embarrass them? When are we going to get in their face, Ricardo? And I just said we are not the organization that is going to do that. We’re just going to keep talking to them in a way that they are being used to being talked to. We’re going to show them respect.
“We made sure the kids understood that message. We explained to them, you may hear something from some of these senators, they may look at you and say no, we’re not giving you any money, because we don’t agree, if you are here without legal papers and you are an illegal alien, you shouldn’t get any help, period. As long as you are with our organization, you can’t get into it, you have to be respectful of their opinions.”
Gave it a Human Face
It was clear the effort had to be trained on the Senate, Sanchez said. And the effort proceeded the old-fashioned way, by building relationships. Sanchez tells of the time Sen. Joe Fain, R-Covington, an early advocate for the measure, came to visit one of the afterschool programs organized by the group. A seventh grader entered the room late. “Instead of doing what I would have done at that age, which would have been to circle around to the back of the room, she came and plopped herself in front of Sen. Fain. I asked her to introduce herself, and she said, well, I am a student and I want to be a surgeon and I want to go to the University of Washington and change the world.”
Fain was charmed, Sanchez said, and offered to adopt her if her parents would ever permit it. And when the meeting was over, Sanchez explained: “She’s undocumented.” No financial aid would be available.
It was a quiet effort, one that forged a bond between lawmakers and the students themselves. Early this session the organization brought 30 students down from Mt. Vernon to meet with legislators. “It was in this huge room, and so they were all in this big circle, and this one young girl who was there, she started telling Sen. Bailey her personal story – and you know there is so much of this out there, this is why we think it is so important. These kids are real scholars. And she was telling Sen. Bailey about how she came here, and how she had a 3.7 grade-point average, and she wanted to be a professional, and she was crying during this time, describing this.
“And Sen. Bailey said, ‘well, I want your students to know a little more about me, and I picked cotton in the South, to help my family make ends meet.’ And pretty soon, Sen. Bailey was emotional, talking about this – and I think that was really a seminal moment. This budget stuff is critical, but I also think that meeting, it was seminal. You know, Sen. Bailey found out how emotionally invested she was in this. And less than three hours later, Sen. Fain comes down and said, ‘I think things have begun to thaw, and we might just be able to get things done.’ “
Funding Was Critical
Big issue for Senate leaders was making sure there was a way to provide college financial aid without bumping others from the waiting list. Currently some 74,000 students receive state need grants, but there are another 32,000 for whom the state does not have sufficient funds. “I think the most important thing to many of our members is that we pay for it,” said Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler. When Senate budget-writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond, decided $5 million could be allocated to the purpose without strain, that did the trick. Bailey made a pitch to the caucus: They ought to do it. “We have a lot of kids out there, bright kids,” she said. “We want them to go to college.”
But reaching agreement among members wasn’t easy. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, the Senate Majority Caucus Chair, tells of “soulful conversations” behind the closed doors of the Senate Majority Caucus meeting room. “Last year, some of the lobbying on this issue was more political,” she said. “And this year, especially with Ricardo’s group – and a lot of those LEAP kids are in my district – it was a policy discussion in a professional way. That was the difference, in addition to having the time. When it is a long session, like it was last year, you are so focused on the budget, you don’t always have the time. This time we had the time.”
There was an undeniable element of politics to it, as there always is to any major vote before the Legislature. By permitting the vote to move forward, the Majority Coalition eliminates an issue that might have been used against its candidates this fall, a matter of particular importance in the swing districts of the suburban Puget Sound area. And it bolsters the GOP’s appeal among Hispanic voters, whose influence is just beginning to be felt. The vote was a relief to some who weigh matters of strategy. “This is one of those great moments when good government and good politics aligned,” said Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington. “The Real Hope Act lets moderate Republicans continue their work rebuilding the party in the suburbs and will strengthen us in Eastern Washington.”
Hays added, “It’s tempting to oppose a bill just because extreme groups like FUSE are supporting it. Senate moderates wisely refused to play that game and instead improved on the House’s bill. That takes guts.”
But Majority Leader Tom said the upcoming elections were never the issue. In his speech on the Senate floor, he ran through the standard arguments about educational opportunity and the 21st-century economy and the challenges of the future. But then he reminded the Senate of the Thursday-afternoon news conference where the decision was announced, when 19-year-old Dulce Siguenza choked back tears and told how the lack of financial aid forced her to drop out of the University of Washington. “I think all of us here should make sure that Dulce makes it back to the University of Washington, that all these kids have access to the American dream.”