CHICAGO – When 25-year-old Rigoberto Padilla first enrolled in one of Chicago's community colleges in 2007, there were few financial aid options available for illegal immigrants like him.
He was brought to the country from Mexico at age 6 when his family crossed the California border illegally for a new life in Chicago.
Starting this Thursday, Illinois officials expect thousands of young immigrants to apply for help for college through a privately-funded state scholarship program.
Immigrant students in Illinois – whether they have papers or not – can apply for tuition help to Illinois colleges and universities because of the Illinois DREAM Fund, which was created by state legislation passed in 2011.
Officials with the fund say special focus will be given to students who don't have legal status to stay in the country.
"Undocumented students are ineligible for federal aid," said Tanya Cabrera, head of the fund and associate director of minority student outreach at Illinois Institute of Technology. "We're not covering everything, but we are giving students a large sum to help them minimize their financial burden."
The fund has raised $500,000 in private donations so far. Immigrant students attending two-year colleges are eligible to apply for $2,000 scholarships and those attending four-year institutions can apply for $6,000.
While some states have tightened regulations around illegal immigration in recent years, Illinois has continued to institute policies that give it some of the most immigrant-friendly policies in the country. There was little opposition to the college scholarship fund, which had backing from top leaders in the state.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the fund, saying last week in a statement that it encouraged students to "pursue their education regardless of their legal status. This fund will help remove the biggest barrier to immigrants pursuing higher education: cost."
Applicants must have at least a 2.5 GPA, and a minimum ACT score of 17 is required of those just graduating high school.
Some critics of the scholarship fund have suggested that it could lead to more illegal immigration, which Illinois officials dismissed.
"We are trying to take care of the immigrants who are here," Cabrera said. "We are trying to provide them access. It's unfortunate that others don't recognize that."
She expects 5,000 students to apply for scholarship money this year. The fund is working to raise $5 million.
"We want to make the scholarship renewable," Cabrera said. "We don't want students to saying, 'It's a one-time thing so what happens next?'"
The Illinois scholarships also come during a shift in federal policy toward young illegal immigrants.
Federal officials announced new guidelines earlier this year that provide a two-year protection from deportation to certain young people brought to this country illegally and the chance to apply for a work permit. The federal government began accepting applications in August. Some groups estimate that as many as 1.7 million people could be eligible; an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S.
Padilla is now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He will not be applying for a Dream Fund scholarship, having secured funding through other scholarships.
But he hopes the fund will encourage undocumented students to go to college.
"More and more undocumented youth are being discouraged to continue their educations because of the immigration climate," said Padilla, also a member of the scholarship fund's administrative board. "Through the Illinois Dream Fund, we're trying to give undocumented youth a bit of hope and motivation."
Illinois DREAM Fund: http://www.illinoisdreamfund.org/