By Greg Lucas
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday signed a bill giving illegal immigrant college students access to state-funded financial aid, the second half of two-part legislation known as the "Dream Act."
The controversial measure, which passed the Democrat-controlled legislature on a party-line vote in September, represents a victory for immigrant-rights activists ahead of the 2012 presidential election. California is the nation's most populous state.
Only two other states, Texas and New Mexico, allow illegal immigrants to qualify for state financial aid for college, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Going to college is a dream that promises intellectual excitement and creative thinking," Brown said in a written statement issued by his office.
"The Dream Act benefits us all by giving top students a chance to improve their lives and the lives of all of us," he said.
Brown in July fulfilled a campaign promise by signing into law a companion bill to allow illegal immigrants to receive privately-funded college scholarships. Together the two bills have been dubbed the "California Dream Act."
A federal Dream Act that would have created a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military failed in Senate last year.
Opponents of the California Dream Act have argued that public funds should not be used to help illegal immigrants, especially as California faces deep budget woes that have prompted cuts in education and higher tuitions at the state's public colleges and universities.
"Citizens are having a hard enough time getting the classes they need now," Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Hesperia Republican, wrote in a September 9 letter to Brown urging him to veto the legislation.
"(California already offers) students in the country illegally in-state tuition; legally documented students from the next state over can only dream of such a benefit," Donnelly said.
California is one of about a dozen states that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, based on attendance and graduation from a state high school.
Under the new law, written by Senator Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat, those same illegal immigrants would be eligible for aid from the University of California, California State university system and the state's 112 community colleges.
They could also apply for Cal Grants, which are cash awards based on academic performance.
For the 2007-2008 academic year, the University of California reports that less than three-tenths of one percent of the system's 220,000 students were immigrants who qualified for in-state tuition.
More than 68 percent of those 1,941 students were U.S. citizens or "documented" immigrants, according to the University of California.
At the state universities, the new law would affect 3,633 students, or less than one percent of the 440,000 students enrolled in the current school year.
Of the nearly 2.9 million community college enrollees, 34,057 would be affected
(Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Greg McCune)