While the state law would do nothing to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, it would provide them with more education benefits than they have in any other state. Advocates of the legislation say it would also send a powerful message to President Obama and Congress, forcing them to reconcile a patchwork of state laws that contradict one another.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said during his campaign last fall that he would support such a law and signed legislation this summer that gave illegal immigrants access to privately financed state scholarships and other aid. While he has not publicly said that he would sign this second measure, Mr. Brown’s staff members have been working with legislators to amend the bill in order to trim some costs.
The Democratic-controlled Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill on Wednesday along a party-line vote. The amended bill is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled State Assembly in the next week.
Assemblyman Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, the lead author of the bill, has persistently made an economic argument to convince his colleagues.
“We will soon have to replace one million workers who leave the work force,” Mr. Cedillo said. “Why would we cut ourselves off from students who have demonstrated since they got here that they have tremendous talent and resilience? This is a very smart decision for the state. It’s not necessarily popular or without controversy, but we have to get these students fully educated.”
The bill is particularly controversial at a time when the state is facing major budget problems and drastically cutting spending on higher education.
The legislation is expected to cost about $40 million, according to an analysis by the State Senate, about 1 percent of the state’s total $3.5 billion budget for college financial aid.
Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican who represents San Bernardino, said that he would try to organize a ballot referendum to overturn the legislation.
“The governor is coming to the folks and saying they need to pay more, and then he’s going to turn around and say we still have money to hand over to people who are in the country illegally,” Mr. Donnelly said. “That is absolutely wrong. We are saying to the world: ‘If you haven’t come to California yet illegally, come as soon you can.’ And we’re saying to the people who came legally: ‘You guys are idiots.’ ”
The law would allow illegal immigrants and out-of-state students who attended California high schools for three years or more to apply for the financial aid.
In 2001, the state passed a law allowing those same students to be eligible for in-state tuition. The University of California, California State University and community college systems now enroll roughly 40,000 such students, about 1 percent of the total enrollment.
Because they lack work visas, many of those students are still unable to secure jobs for which they may be qualified. Opponents of the state Dream Act argue that such legislation would only increase the number of college graduates without jobs.
But supporters contend that many students may get legal status while they are in school, because they have already applied for legal residency or citizenship, a process that can take decades. And they are holding out hope that the Obama administration and Congress will approve the federal Dream Act, which would give students who have graduated from college or served in the military a path to citizenship.
Ana Gomez, whose parents brought her from Mexico to the United States when she was 7 years old, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2009 and said she was among the few in her group of friends who did not have to spend semesters away from campus to make more money to pay for tuition. Most of them relied on odd jobs that paid cash because they did not have work permits.
“People are really struggling to stay and make it through,” Ms. Gomez said. “Being able to attend and get in-state tuition is one thing, but then you have to find a way to pay for it, and it’s next to impossible. A lot of kids just get stuck in community college. This changes all of that.”
The legislation that Mr. Brown signed in July allowed illegal immigrants to apply for a pool of $80 million in state scholarships that are financed through private sources. The bill that passed Wednesday would allow them to also gain access to $40 million in grants and scholarships that are paid for by the state.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which sued the state to overturn the law granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition, called the bill “a really stupid allocation of limited resources.”
“It certainly ranks up there as one of the most dramatic moves, but I leave it up the California Legislature to outdo themselves,” Mr. Mehlman said.
He added, “In every way possible the state is catering to illegal aliens even if it comes at the cost of other legal citizens.”
Although there has been vocal opposition to the bill, it has benefited from widespread support; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, university presidents and agricultural leaders have all backed the legislation.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation three times while he was in office.
Public opinion on illegal immigrants has shifted sharply in the state over the last several years, said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“Five years ago, this was politically risky,” Mr. Schnur said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, it would have been political suicide. But today, it is hard to see it having much of a political impact one way or another here.”