University of California President Janet Napolitano said Wednesday she is devoting $5 million to provide special counseling and financial aid for students living in the U.S. illegally, a move aimed at disarming critics who worried the former Secretary of Homeland Security and Arizona governor would be hostile to the small but vocal student population.
Napolitano announced the initiative in San Francisco during her first public address since she became head of the 10-campus university system a month ago.
"Let me be clear. UC welcomes all students who qualify academically, whether they are documented or undocumented," she told an audience of several hundred people. "Consider this a down payment -- one more piece of evidence of our commitment to all Californians."
Napolitano said the money earmarked for immigrant students would be used for financial aid and to hire advisers at each campus who could provide guidance on matters ranging from how to pursue legal U.S. residency to applying for graduate school.
"They do merit special attention," she said. "Oftentimes they are from families who are very poor and first-generation, so have no one out there to talk to them about student life."
University officials estimate that out of a student population of 239,000, the UC system enrolls about 900 students who were brought into the country illegally as children, a group of immigrants known as "dreamers" because of the stalled U.S. DREAM Act that would give certain youth a path to permanent residency.
As part of a bill signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, California this year started admitting students who are not legal U.S. residents and are therefore ineligible for most types of federal financial aid to apply for state grants and scholarships.
Napolitano also pledged $10 million for recruiting and training graduate students and post-doctoral research fellows.
UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said later that the $15 million Napolitano pledged in her remarks would not come from tuition or the university's state-funded operating budget. It will be instead be drawn from reserves in accounts the system has used to help finance faculty mortgages and campus efficiency projects, Klein said.
Since her appointment as the university's 20th president in July, Napolitano has devoted energy to alleviating the concerns of campus activists who argued she would not be able to advocate effectively for immigrants because of her background in Washington running the Department of Homeland Security, and as a former governor of Arizona, a state that has in recent years passed controversial immigration laws.
Napolitano met with student groups representing the "dreamers" on the day she was confirmed and during her first day on the job. She told reporters after the speech that while she had been listening to their concerns, allocating the special funding was a decision she had reached independently.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press