By MICHAEL GORMLEY
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants would become eligible to receive government financial aid to attend college in New York under a bill that state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver introduced Friday.
The powerful Democrat's bill follows the Obama administration "Dream Act" initiative this week. It defers deportation for young illegal immigrants and makes it easier for them to get better jobs and pay for college.
"My parents came here as immigrants and I was able to have opportunities precisely because this country welcomed my family and allowed us to work hard and succeed," Silver said Friday.
If it becomes law in New York, Silver's measure could influence the presidential debate. The state is home to more than 4 million legal immigrants and growing fast, and it has some of the nation's highest concentrations of public and private colleges. Because illegal immigrants are undocumented, it's hard to estimate their numbers.
New York's proposal comes two days after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer issued an executive order denying driver's licenses and other public benefits to illegal immigrants who are authorized to work under the Obama program. She said those rights are reserved for legal residents.
Under the federal program, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are under 31 years old and lived in the United States at least five years. They also must be in school or graduated or have served in the U.S. military, have no convictions and pose no threat to public safety.
"We don't have enough engineers and scientists in this country," Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said in an interview. "If we have young immigrants, we need to give them the opportunity to a college education that will increase our pool and make New York state business better overall."
The Senate's Democratic minority has supported a New York "Dream Act," which they are trying to make a campaign issue for the fall elections to regain the majority from Republicans.
"We commend the speaker for this legislation," said Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy. "This is something that we are extremely supportive of and I think it goes perfectly with our Dream Act legislation that we pushed this year, but was unfortunately blocked by the Senate Republicans."
There was no immediate comment from the Senate's Republican majority nor from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Under New York law, illegal immigrant students already pay the lower public college tuition for state residents, rather than the higher rate for those coming from outside New York.
The bill would provide access to the Tuition Assistance Program that provides grants to hundreds of thousands of students each year in public and private colleges, according to the bill co-sponsored by Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan and Assemblyman Francisco Moya of Queens.
While the bill would make TAP available for illegal immigrants, TAP was discontinued for graduate students who are legal residents beginning in the 2010-11 state budget as part of spending cuts in a fiscal crisis in a policy that continues today. TAP provides varying grants up to full tuition based on financial need to more than 309,000 students. In the current budget, TAP was increased by $21 million to a total of $930 million.
Illegal immigrants would also be eligible for other grants and low-interest loans based on financial need. The bill will require a new application form and process to help students who can't fill out a federal student aid form.
Some previous measures providing more rights to illegal immigrants have drawn concern even in Democrat-dominated New York. In 2007, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer was blocked by Republicans in his attempt to allow illegal immigrants to apply for driver's licenses, partly out of fear it could help terrorists.
The bill could be considered in the regular session beginning in January, or in an expected special session after the November elections.