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Washington state lawmakers pass measure giving immigrants college aid

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee looks over the scene as a span of highway bridge sits in the Skagit River May 24, 2013 after collapsing
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee looks over the scene as a span of highway bridge sits in the Skagit River May 24, 2013 after collapsing

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington state lawmakers have voted to make students brought to the United States illegally by their parents eligible for need-based college financial aid.

Passage of the measure, which supporters have labeled the Dream Act after failed U.S. legislation of 2010, marks a victory for immigrant-rights advocates and a shift within the state Republican party, whose members have blocked similar measures in recent years.

The bill, which passed the House by 75 to 22 votes on Tuesday, goes next to Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, who has promised to sign it. States that have enacted similar measures include California, Illinois, and Texas.

"This bill ensures that the young men and women we've invested in at our high schools and who aspire to become productive American citizens will now have fair access to the financial support they need," Inslee said in a statement.

Last June, the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, while tightening border security.

The bill stalled in the U.S. House, and some conservative Republicans in both chambers remain opposed to offering legal status for adults who live in the United States unlawfully.

The Washington state bill's passage signals a shift among Republicans in a state with a growing Latino population, particularly in many of its conservative-leaning rural districts.

As recently as last month, Republicans in the state Senate - a chamber the party controls with the backing of two dissident Democrats - dismissed the measure's prospects as dim, saying it was low on their list of priorities.

But several of these lawmakers late last month introduced a version of the bill they labeled the Real Hope Act. That measure passed the chamber by a 35-10 vote, with unanimous Democratic support, Republicans split 10-10, and four Republicans abstaining.

In recent years, immigrant-rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers in Washington state have pushed similar measures, which were blocked by Republicans on the grounds they put undocumented immigrants on a level playing field with citizens.

The measure includes $5 million in additional State Need Grant funding, which some estimates suggest is enough to cover the roughly 1,000 undocumented immigrants the bill would make eligible for the aid.

Those immigrants will not be guaranteed help, however, as the new money will go into the existing statewide pot available to all eligible students.

In the 2012-2013 school year, roughly 32,000 otherwise qualified applicants were denied the aid because of a lack of funds, while 74,000 students received assistance, according to a non-partisan legislative staff report.

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Editing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle/Ruth Pitchford)

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