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CEPEDA: California (bad) dreaming leads to dead-end future for undocumented college grads

CHICAGO — Just hours after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act, which will allow illegal immigrant students to be eligible for state-funded financial aid at public universities and community colleges, celebratory email began circulating."Wow, this great and wonderful news for our Hispanic students. This is winning!" said one jubilant respondent to a mass email about the new legislation. Slated to begin in 2013, it will also make undocumented students eligible for institutional grants and waivers within California's higher education community.

Winning? Politically, maybe, though that's a stretch -- this new development will surely cause more ire to be directed toward California's illegal immigrants. The legislation is terribly misleading to many constituencies, especially to the newly eligible students themselves.

The text of a news release on the governor's website said the law "allows top students who are on the path to citizenship to apply for college financial aid."

First, it does not confer citizenship. Given that there is little chance that either comprehensive immigration reform or piecemeal legislation such as the federal DREAM Act will be passed anytime soon -- such bills have been routinely shot down for 10 years and the current rage over immigration won't wane until long after the economy gets on track -- the "on the path to citizenship" bit is a tremendous overstatement. But it's one that certain interest groups want to hear because it pretends there is a national political momentum behind such moves.

The part about "top students" is a reach as well. California is extremely liberal with student tuition assistance and, even in the case of the so-called "competitive awards," students with grade point averages as low as 2.0 -- a "C" -- can qualify for money that never has to be paid back. It was probably included to make Californians feel better about the new beneficiaries of their tax dollars.

The truth is that such grants usually make a tiny dent in the costs of attending college. Even if a student goes to a community college, there is often a huge shortfall between the Cal Grant awards and the full cost of tuition, fees, books and living or transportation expenses so as to require student loans. And illegal immigrants aren't eligible for any kind of federal student aid.

But the costs are not the biggest point of contention -- truly resourceful students usually find ways to pay for college, and California estimates that only about 1 percent of all Cal Grant funds could potentially go to undocumented students.

Consider the stark realities of the situation. The bill was sold to Californians as a benefit to the state's pained tax base, and indeed, most states know what projected revenues can be assumed for every newly minted college graduate. In Illinois, it is estimated that within six years of a student enrolling in a community college, his or her income tax payments will grow by 70 percent compared to 7 percent for a low-income taxpayer who does not attend community college. Even students who don't graduate show major increases in income tax payments.

But illegal immigrants -- even those with hard-earned college degrees -- cannot legally work in California, or anywhere else, in this country.

It is nothing short of tragic that the very people who push in-state tuition or financial aid opportunities for illegal immigrants never mention the fact that unless a wide-ranging federal amnesty program is put into place, there are no career paths for these students.

No one ever talks about the untold number who made their way through college and are now older than 35, the cutoff stated in the version of the DREAM Act that was introduced in Congress last year. But they, like other undocumented college grads who can't access legitimate jobs in their chosen field of study, are out there, just scraping by.

And does anyone really want more graduates to join the ranks of desperate job seekers? The September unemployment numbers said the national unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent, while California's rate is a painful 12.1 percent.

The California Dream Act isn't careful planning designed to give a boost to the state's illegal immigrants or benefit the general population -- and referendum papers to overturn the new law have already been filed. It is the mirror opposite of tactics other states are using to diminish illegal immigrant populations: feel-good legislation that only scores political points for politicians seeking re-election.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.