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Panel OKs bill to halt benefits

CARSON CITY — Illegal immigrants would be blocked from receiving Millennium Scholarships, college loans and in-state tuition under a bill approved on a 5-1 vote Monday evening by the Senate Human Resources Committee.

“This is about following the law,” said Sen. Joe Heck, R-Henderson. “Federal law prevents giving post-secondary educational benefits to illegal residents. Opponents will say we are unfairly penalizing children for the mistakes of their parents, but this is about following the law.”

Before the final vote on Senate Bill 415, the committee rejected an amendment from Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, that would allow illegal residents to continue receiving college benefits if they signed affidavits declaring their intention to become U.S. citizens.

“This is a human race issue,” Horsford said. “These are human beings. We need to respect that they are children and trying to do what is right.”

Horsford proposed an amendment to allow students in the country illegally to continue to receive benefits if they start the process to seek citizenship. He added they would be required to pay the money back if they did not seek citizenship within a certain period of time.

But Heck questioned how his proposal could be enforced, and the committee rejected the amendment. Horsford said he would propose the amendment again before the entire Senate.

During a volatile hearing, Vice Chancellor Jane Nichols testified that the Higher Education System of Nevada estimates that 447 illegal immigrants are attending Nevada colleges and universities, of which 94 receive Millennium Scholarships. Overall 67,000 students are attending Nevada colleges and universities, and 17,000 receive the scholarships.

Nichols said that for the purposes of determining whether someone is a resident, the system assumes all graduates of Nevada high schools are legal residents.

The Heck bill does not offer guidelines on how colleges and universities would detect whether a student was in the country legally.

Nichols said estimates of illegal immigrants attending Nevada colleges are simply best guesses. She did not return a call seeking information on how the estimates were made. The estimates are the first the university system ever has made on the number of illegal immigrants.

“They are maximum numbers,” she said. “We are not quite certain. We do not ask for proof of citizenship.”

The vote Monday is the first step in a long road before the bill becomes law. A similar bill was killed two years ago in the Democratic-dominated Assembly. Republicans hold a 11-10 edge in the Senate, while the Democrats control the Assembly 27-15.

During the hearing, Hispanic leaders decried the bill, saying it would deprive good students of their chance to achieve the American dream of a college education.

“These children had no choice over where they would reside,” said Vincenta Montoya, a communications director for the Nevada Hispanic Democratic Caucus. “Yet they secured good grades. These are Nevada children.”

Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas, called the Millennium Scholars “our best and brightest.”

“You would be denying students who have done what they were told to do,” he added.

Heck said a 2005 Homeland Security Department study determined 240,000 illegal immigrants live in Nevada. If 16 percent are public school students, then state government spends $257 million a year educating them. That figure is based on the current state expenditure of $6,686 per student.

He added that a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision prevents states from denying public school educations to the children of illegal immigrants.

But during the hearing, witnesses said 10 states have taken actions seemingly contrary to the intent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

Most require students found to be illegal immigrants to sign a statement that they will work toward becoming citizens as a condition to keeping scholarships and other benefits, Horsford said.

“There is nothing automatic about the federal act,” added Richard Siegel, an American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist. “States can take positive action to have undocumented students continue to be eligible for scholarships. These students or their parents are paying Nevada taxes, sales taxes.”

If a university learned a student was not a legal resident, then “a high school valedictorian” could be denied an academic scholarship, or a football star “who scores touchdowns on Friday nights” could be declared ineligible for an athletic scholarship, said James Richardson, a Nevada Faculty Alliance lobbyist.

But other witnesses gave their unqualified support for the bill.

“What kind of message does it send to law-abiding citizens when our legislators dole out rewards to those who have been dishonest?” asked Rita Bonnilla, testifying by teleconference from Las Vegas.

Eagle Forum President Janine Hansen called the legislation a “pro-American citizen bill that will help more Nevadans who are American citizens to achieve the American dream.”

Hansen said the federal government has failed to take care of the immigration problem and dumped it on the states.

“There is a finite amount of money to educate students and that money should be prioritized for American students,” she added.

All four Republicans and Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas, supported Senate Bill 415, while Horsford opposed it.

Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, abstained, saying she hopes an acceptable amendment wins Senate approval. Wiener said she reserved the option of voting against the bill when it comes up for a vote in Senate if an amendment is not approved.

Besides Heck and Wiener, the bill was supported by Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, and Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas.

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