By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Undocumented immigrants admitted to the University of California will be eligible for $5 million in services under a program announced on Wednesday, the latest in a series of moves to expand immigrant rights in the country's most populous state.
Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now president of the 10-campus U.C. system, set aside the funding as one of her first acts in her new job, calling it a down payment on the state's commitment to all of its residents.
"U.C. will continue to be a vehicle for social mobility," Napolitano told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in her first major address since taking the helm of the university last month.
The money for the new programs would come from discretionary funds that are not provided by the state and would be used to pay for advisers, student services centers and financial aid, Napolitano said.
The funding is part of a broader effort to expand immigrant rights in strongly Democratic California, where 2.6 million people - most of them Latino - lack legal status, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California.
About 38 percent of California's population of 38 million is of Hispanic descent, state figures show, representing a potentially enormous number of voters with an interest in immigrant issues.
In recent months, the state has passed laws allowing immigrants living illegally in the country to apply for driver's licenses and practice law, and made it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers by threatening to report them to immigration authorities. California has also made significant overtures to undocumented students, allowing many to pay in-state tuition and offering other services.
The moves by California stand in stark contrast to policy in states like neighboring Arizona, long at odds with Washington over immigration reform. Earlier this month, Arizona widened its ban on drivers' licenses for those living in the country illegally, including those granted temporary relief from deportation.
The new funding at the University of California is meant to help offset the impact of the ban on federal assistance for undocumented immigrants, said spokeswoman Dianne Klein.
"With the passage of the California dream act, undocumented students are now eligible for state and UC financial aid," Klein said in an email. "What they are still excluded from is federal loans. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage."
She said the new program "will help bridge that gap."
The money will go a long way, Klein said, because there are only about 900 undocumented students in the system. Altogether, the U.C. system has 240,000 students, Klein said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)