By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Washington became the fifth U.S. state to offer college financial aid to students brought into the country illegally as children, as Democratic Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation on Wednesday to make them eligible for state grants.
Inslee, in signing the bill to provide aid to students whose families meet income and residency guidelines, hailed it as a major victory for "thousands of bright, talented and very hard working students across the state of Washington."
"I've had some good days as governor of the state of Washington, but this may be the best," Inslee said. California, Illinois, Texas and New Mexico have passed similar measures.
Passage of the measure, dubbed by its supporters as the Dream Act of Washington state, marks a victory for immigrant-rights advocates and a shift within the state Republican party, whose members blocked a similar measure last year. The law is set to take effect in June.
Just last month, Republican state senators had signaled they would not pass the bill but in a sudden turnabout introduced their own version in the Republican-dominated upper chamber that included $5 million to help fund the existing, badly oversubscribed grant program.
The new money is expected to cover 1,200 new enrollees, which corresponds with lawmakers' estimate for the upper limit of students who will be eligible for aid under the new law.
However, students in the country illegally still face an uncertain future after graduation.
A bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally stalled in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS, MOVING PERSONAL STORIES
Changing demographics in Washington state has caused some Republicans to alter their stance on helping immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University.
"Republicans are influenced by the continued growth of the Hispanic population, particularly in Republican areas of the state," Nice said.
Hispanics made up 11.2 percent of its population in 2010, up from 4.4 percent in 1990, according to U.S. Census figures.
Other analysts attribute the Republican shift to lobbying efforts that featured moving stories of how this financial aid would allow immigrants to go to college and secure a future.
"There aren't many (Washington state) Republicans who have to worry about a competing Latino vote right now," said Luis Fraga, a University of Washington political science professor. "It's more likely that their consciences were tapped by the humanity of the stories that they heard from the students."
The newly eligible immigrants will face a higher standard to qualify for aid than legal residents, said Jim West, a residency specialist at the Washington Student Achievement Council, which administers the financial aid.
While U.S. citizens must live in the state one year before qualifying, undocumented immigrant students will need to have attended at least three years of high school in the state and have earned a high school diploma or equivalent in the state.
In all cases, a qualifying student's family income must be below $57,500, or 70 percent of the state's median family income. Washington state has granted in-state tuition to otherwise qualified undocumented immigrants since 2003.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker and Gunna Dickson)