Presidents and chancellors from 12 universities expressed their support on Wednesday for the Illinois version of the long-stalled federal DREAM Act to use private funds to help undocumented students pursue their studies as the first step toward nationwide immigration reform.

The bill, which was approved in the state Senate with the votes of 11 Republicans, is expected to pass the lower house in a vote set for later this month.

Andrew Sund, rector of Chicago's Saint Augustine College, whose 1,600 students are overwhelmingly Hispanic, told Efe that the DREAM Act of Illinois will not replace the bill Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin recently reintroduced in the U.S. Senate.

The federal legislation, first proposed a decade ago, would provide a path to legalization for undocumented students who enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces or attend college.

"It's a first step toward something bigger that shows a different attitude of Illinois toward the immigration problem," he added. "The challenge is keeping the discussion of immigration reform on the agenda and keeping up the pressure."

Saint Augustine is the only Illinois university to accept immigrants who don't speak English and it offers them a curriculum in Spanish while they are learning English.

In their statement, the education leaders said that the admissions process at the universities does not judge students on their immigration status, but rather on their talent.

Undocumented students who manage to overcome the language and financial barriers and the stigma of not having proper immigration papers have only one thing about them that is different from other graduates - the inability to work legally in the United States - the college heads said.

The presidents and chancellors said that the state of Illinois cannot offer access to federal student financial aid programs, but it can create a private scholarship fund for undocumented students.

By the same token, the rectors said that the proposed state law will not regularize the immigration status of undocumented students "but it will offer them basic protection against the threat and fear of deportation."

Those who signed the statement are the heads of the University of Illinois Chicago, Northwestern University, DePaul University, Loyola University of Chicago, Roosevelt University, National Louis University, North Park University, Elmhurst College, Illinois State University, Dominican University, Saint Xavier University and Saint Augustine College.

The statement was also backed by the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, which represents 59 private institutions, and the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents.

The Illinois DREAM Act bill would also make it easier for high school advisors and university and college admission officers to become informed about the available opportunities for undocumented students and to know how to work with this group.

Although the sponsors of the bill have emphasized the private nature of the funds for the scholarships, the initiative was attacked by the Illinois Tea Party, which called it a "nightmare" in a state that is facing a gigantic budget deficit.

The conservative group wrote an open letter attacking the 11 Republicans who joined 34 Democratic lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill.