HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — University of Connecticut junior Eric Cruz Lopez is barred from applying for government student financial aid, so he's taking a year off from college to work and earn enough money to complete his education.
Lopez doesn't have legal immigration status; an executive order from former President Barack Obama allows him and other students who came to the United States as children to get special visas.
Connecticut allows the students to pay in-state tuition as long as they have spent at least two years at a state high school. But they can't apply for any government money, including institutional financial aid that's directly funded by student tuition payments.
Lopez and other students are trying to get that changed. They testified Tuesday before the Connecticut legislature's Higher Education Committee in favor of two bills that would open up institutional aid to students regardless of immigration status.
Lopez, who came the United States when he was 7 and lives in Bridgeport, said the students simply want to be allowed to compete for need-based financial aid.
"For me and my friends, we don't know where the next piece of money, the next scholarship, the next $1,000 to piece together tuition from next semester is coming from," said Lopez, who wants to become a high school math teacher. "I have been worried about paying for college since I was 10, knowing that because we had to go to a food pantry to get food, paying for my education was going to be hard."
Opponents have argued that allowing the students to access financial aid would mean less money for those in the country legally.
But Wayne Locust, UConn's vice president, testified the proposal would not affect many students and would not have a major impact on the school's financial aid budget. UConn sets aside 18 percent of tuition payments, or about $71 million in the last academic year, for institutional financial aid, he said.
He and Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, testified in favor of the legislation, saying it is a matter of fairness.
Ojakian noted that all students, including those without legal status, have a portion of their tuition money placed in the financial aid monetary pool. No taxpayer funds are used for that aid.
"In some cases, these students may be subsidizing the cost of attendance for students who have much less financial need than they do," he said. "All they are asking for is the opportunity to access a fund which they are currently supporting with their own hard-earned dollars."
He noted that several other states, including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington already have already opened up intuitional aid to the students, known as Dreamers.
Lopez and others said they worry that it will only become harder to access higher education during a Trump administration, which already has threatened to rescind Obama's executive order, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat who has been pushing the financial aid legislation for three years, said the administration's anti-immigrant policies may actually help the legislation pass in Connecticut this session.
"People who are appalled at the attitude of the Trump administration might just find this an appropriate response to what they see coming from Washington," he said.