Immigrants stand to lose from aid cuts University officials oppose reductions in student assistance

'Shortsighted and foolish'

Plan would reduce grants, loans for noncitizen residents

November 11, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Some 2,000 Maryland college students -- permanent American residents, who are not citizens -- would likely be stripped of their eligibility for several million dollars in federal grants and loans each year if a congressional proposal to cut aid for legal immigrants becomes law.

The little-noticed provision, buried in a congressional plan for sharp reductions in welfare spending, would shake the states of California and New York most vigorously. But Maryland has a relatively high number of legal immigrants on its campuses, and area college officials interviewed were unanimous in opposition to the measure.

They argued that it would deprive many immigrants of the education they seek.

"There's no question that in terms of public policy, this makes very little sense," said Robert J. Massa, dean of undergraduate enrollment at the Johns Hopkins University. "It may in the short term save some federal financial aid dollars. It seems to me that we devalue their potential contribution as future citizens."

The new policy, passed in separate legislation by the House and the Senate but not yet law, would not formally cut all benefits to legal immigrants. Instead, it would include the wealth of legal immigrants' sponsors in calculating their eligibility for federal programs. But that has the effect of forcing sponsors to choose between finding money to replace federal aid or allowing the immigrants they backed to go without education in their adopted country.

While some Democrats have opposed the measure, congressional Republicans note that immigrants are admitted legally to this country only if they can persuade officials that they are economically self-sufficient. A sponsor, often a family member, also must affirm support for that immigrant if he or she falls on hard times.

"Being a sponsor for someone who is going to be an Amer-ican citizen is a serious thing. It's not something to be entered into lightly," said a House Republican staffer who works on education and labor issues.

An October draft report from the General Accounting Office, a nonpartisan agency that performs audits for Congress, showed that about 390,000 legal immigrants received $662 million in Pell grants in the 1992-1993 school year, nearly 10 percent of the total. Of those people, about 107,000 also received Stafford student loans worth $257 million -- or 6 percent of all Stafford loans. It is impossible to determine exactly how many legal immigrants received the loans because citizenship status is not noted for the loans.

Pell grants are federal entitlements for lower-income Americans. Although they were worth up to $2,400 in 1992-1993, how much each student receives depends in part on family income and holdings, and on the number of college-aged people in the family. Stafford loans are backed by the federal government.

The GAO study showed Maryland had the eighth-most legal immigrants, who received Pell grants totaling $2.9 million in 1992-1993.

At Hopkins, for example, 500 undergraduates are permanent residents who are not American citizens. Of those students, 186 are receiving need-based aid from Hopkins, including Pell grants and federally subsidized loans.

At the University of Maryland College Park are 2,544 legal immigrants in undergraduate programs, of whom 1,580 received federal financial aid totaling about $10 million, school officials said. The University of Maryland Baltimore County has about 1,200 students who are permanent residents.

Because the income guidelines determining who is eligible for Pell grants are set low, sponsors would not have to make much money to knock immigrants out of the program, educators said.

Monika Bilich, an 18-year-old immigrant from Poland, came to America in March 1994. Her uncle, who sponsored her move here, promised to teach her English and said she would not have to go to school.

"He gave me just two lessons, and that's it. I had no friends, nobody helped me," Ms. Bilich, who lives in Dundalk, said. "So I stay home a few months, no school, no job."

With the help of federal aid -- she has $700 in Pell grants this term -- Ms. Bilich is on track to complete advanced courses at Baltimore City Community College's English Language Institute and plans to tackle the General Educational Development program next year to earn a high school equivalency diploma. Then, she said, she hopes to attend the Baltimore Culinary Institute and become a confectioner. Until she gets that job, however, she will not have the money for school.

Another opponent of the proposal is David Merkowitz, vice president for public affairs at the American Council on Education, a Washington coalition of 1,600 schools and colleges.

"Congress has always maintained a very clear distinction between welfare programs and student aid, which is an investment," Mr. Merkowitz said. "It is a benefit that aids the nation, as well as those students. It is shortsighted and foolish and counterproductive to deny them those opportunities."

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