Although the rising cost of higher education has affected students nationwide, it is especially burdensome for noncitizen students like 23-year-old Gutierrez, who are currently ineligible for state-funded financial aid.
The House approved the Washington State DREAM Act, a measure extending state financial aid to undocumented citizens on Wednesday. House Bill 1817 passed out of the House in a 77-20 vote with bipartisan support.
The bill extends State Need Grant eligibility to non-citizen students who have graduated from a Washington high school and lived in-state for more than three years.
Gutierrez, who immigrated to Kent, Wash., from Mexico when he was nine or ten years old, would directly benefit from state financial aid. Although undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition in Washington state, as a full-time employee at Cash and Carry, Gutierrez is unable to further his education. He hopes to enroll at Seattle Central Community College in the near future.
"Right now I get angry at myself for not being in school," said Gutierrez. "Without a degree I feel unaccomplished, I don't feel like a whole person."
On Wednesday in Olympia, House Bill 1817 sponsor Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, urged fellow legislators to reward non-citizen students' dedication to pursuing academic opportunities.
"My brothers and I are proof that hard work plus education equals success," said Ryu. "I believe that every child in this state who is willing to work hard and study hard deserves that same opportunity for their own American dream."
Although an earlier version of the bill was directed towards directed towards young immigrants who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an amendment extended state-funded financial aid to all noncitizen students.
The federal DACA program offers non-citizen, US high school graduates a renewable two-year stay in order to work and go to school. It was passed by the Obama Administration in 2012.
Opponents to House Bill 1817 raised concerns such as the current lack of funding for the State Need Grant, the state's largest financial aid program.
"We cannot fund 32,000 young men and women who need the State Need Grant in the state," said Rep. Larry Hayler, R-Richland. "[And] here we are making another promise that we know we cannot financially make."
Hayler said that expanding the pool of applicants for state financial aid would be unfair to students currently eligible for the State Need Grant.
"In the future yes, we might be able to afford it, but at this point it's a promise we cannot keep," said Hayler. "We've already left 32,000 people disappointed as of today."
Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma said the Washington State Dream Act could not only empower undocumented immigrant students, but also his entire generation in the face of challenges such as unemployment, high tuition costs and burdensome student loans.
"I ask for your support...because the challenges in the upcoming years are pretty tremendous," said Sawyer. "I want to ensure this generation is prepared with the best and the brightest."
House Bill 1817 now moves to the state Senate, where a similar piece of legislation faltered.
As the DREAM Act gains momentum in Olympia, Gutierrez is optimistic about the future of this legislation and his own future. After returning to school, he aspires to become an accountant in order to fight social injustice in finance.
"It's exteremely important that the DREAM Act passes because if you don't educate this country, it can't move forward," said Gutierrez.