While 140,973 college students in Illinois got monetary awards last year, Stephanie Zavala couldn’t apply because of her immigration status.
Zavala, 20, said being undocumented is a barrier. But she is grateful that last year the Illinois Dream Fund Scholarship was launched to help students like her.
“Tuition keeps increasing,” said Zavala a her junior at Dominican University. “So I decided to apply for this scholarship.”
Through the fund that Gov. Pat Quin signed in 2011 to create access to financial resources to the undocumented immigrants, Zavala received a $4,000 scholarship, which will cover part of the annual tuition fee.
A private donor from Erie Community Foundation Scholarship also helps Zavala with $12,000, and her parents help cover the remaining tuition, around $1,000.
Zavala said without the scholarships, she wouldn’t be able to attend Dominican University, where she studies sociology and women gender.
The Illinois Dream Fund, a non-profit in charge of managing the scholarships, unveiled the new program for immigrant students. The scholarship program is part of the Illinois Dream Act, which was signed into law in 2011. It created the Illinois Dream Fund Commission, which raises money for the scholarship program. Last year it raised $400,000, which gave out 36 scholarships and awarded $100,000.
Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) is looking for other ways to help immigrants attend college. She has proposed legislation that would create a tax check-off for the Dream Fund in the voluntary charitable donations form (IL- 1040).
If HB5327 is passed, taxpayers can donate $1 or more, joining the seven non-profits that are listed on the tax form.
“Everybody can donate to the program, [citizens or not citizens],” Hernandez said. “I’m trying to work in initiatives that would sustain [the Dream Act].”
Hernandez is working to move the bill out of the Hose Rules Committee. However, her proposal is drawing opposition from some Illinois residents.
Kristen Williamson, press secretary for the Federation for American Immigration Reform said the Illinois legislature was misguided in creating the Illinois Dream Fund in the first place.
“Citizens and legal residents of Illinois are struggling to finance their higher education, yet the state continues to enact laws to aid illegal aliens,” she said.
Williamson said the Illinois Dream Fund was created to raise private funds on top of the $93.2 million Illinois already spends annually to give in-state tuition breaks to immigrants and their children.
64 percent of Illinois college students carry debt, and the state’s students rank 15th in the nation for student debt at $28,028, she added.
“Illinois residents would be better served by lawmakers who actually addressed the interests of voters, rather than those who have no legal right to be in the U.S.,” Williamson said.
“So far, the Dream Fund has received 1,073 applications, and the Dream Fund is expecting more through this year’s deadline on March 15,” said Tanya Cabrera, chairperson of the program.
She said just 36 immigrants were awarded since the fund was created last year, a total of $2,000 to $6,000 to attend two to four year public and private institutions.
The amount distributed this year will depend on how much money is collected from private organizations, and individuals, Cabrera said.
“Every dollar counts,” she said.
Supporters of the program in Illinois have noted that California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington allow undocumented students to obtain state financial aid for college. But Illinois is the only state that have a fund like this.