BERKELEY -- UC Berkeley is asking some of the country's largest foundations to help undocumented immigrants afford college.

Buoyed by a new state law that allows public colleges and universities to offer private scholarships to students who came to the United States illegally, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said Wednesday he has spoken to major organizations such as the Carnegie and Ford foundations about helping the university.

"One was nervous about the political impact," he said in an interview after his annual back-to-school media briefing. "The other said, 'This is fantastic.' "

Birgeneau has been a vocal supporter of undocumented students -- he spoke to President Barack Obama on the subject earlier this year -- and has advocated in favor of laws allowing those immigrants to attend school and become citizens.

Berkeley is among the first campuses to take advantage of the new law, which allows schools to raise private money for scholarships for undocumented students. Those students, many of whom were brought to the United States by their parents when they were 5 or younger, often have trouble affording college because they are ineligible for federal and state aid, loans and many scholarships. In order to qualify for in-state tuition, the students must have graduated from a California high school and have attended high school here for at least three years.

The requests to major foundations are thorny because of the politically charged immigration issue.

"It remains to be seen whether foundations will step through a door that's been opened for them," said Katharine Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, a foundation that has given scholarships to undocumented students. "Hopefully, this is a new era."

Spokespeople for the New York-based Ford and Carnegie foundations could not be reached.

The students have asked lawmakers to make federal and state grants available to undocumented immigrants, but legislation has stalled. The foundation funding would help, said Ju Hong, a UC Berkeley undergraduate who illegally came to the United States from South Korea when he was 11.

"Most of the undocumented students on our campus face financial hardships," he said. "It's difficult, especially now because of the tuition hikes. We can't really work."

Birgeneau also updated media members about campus finances, which have been battered by repeated state budget cuts. The state provides only 12 percent of the university's operating budget, he said, and is "a distant fourth" when it comes to funding sources.

"The state is really a minor partner," he said. "This is extraordinarily bad judgment on the part of the people in Sacramento."

UC Berkeley has dipped into reserves to avoid major effects on students, Birgeneau said, but will exhaust those funds within a year or two. He urged corporations and the federal government to give more money to flagship universities.

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.