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Tuition Equality Legislation Moves to the Full State Senate

Bill would allow undocumented immigrants to pay instate tuition and qualify for financial aid if they attend state schools

Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Bergen and Passaic)
Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Bergen and Passaic).

The state Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on legislation that would allow New Jersey students who are undocumented immigrants to pay the instate tuition rate if they attend state colleges and universities and to qualify for state financial aid.

The bill, S-2479, was approved by an 8-3 vote in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday, which clears it for a floor vote.

All eight Democrats on the committee voted to send the bill to the full Senate. Republican Sens. Anthony Bucco (Morris), Steven Oroho (Sussex) and Joseph Pennacchio (Morris) voted no.

"Any legislation this body passes should not put American citizens at a disadvantage,” he said. “You may allow an undocumented student to pay tuition parity, however, a struggling family in a neighboring state that is an American citizen may pay more than an undocumented student. A veteran who may have fought for this country may pay more than an undocumented student."

Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) abstained, citing concerns with what she called “unintendend policy consequences.” The bill, as written, she said, could allow about 1,000 out-of-state students attending New Jersey prep schools to then attend New Jersey colleges as in-state students. She also raised concerns about students who move from the state after graduating high school and then return being granted access to instate tuition.

The bill, which would make New Jersey the 17th state in the country to allow undocumented students to pay the lower instate rate, would cover all students who attended a New Jersey high school for three years, graduated or attained an equivalency diploma from a New Jersey high school, and are enrolled at a state institution of higher education during the current school year. Students who are undocumented immigrants would be required file an affidavit saying they have applied to legalize their status or will do so when eligible.

A similar bill, A-4225, awaits Assembly approval, but it is unclear whether it will need committee approval because of some technical changes made to the Senate version. The earliest the Assembly can take up the legislation is December 12. The bill is supported by the incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and has 17 primary and cosponsors.

The governor’s office on Thursday had no comment on S-2479. Gov. Chris Christie signaled his support for tuition equality during the campaign, telling the Latino Leadership Alliance that “we need to get to work in the state Legislature to make sure that we have tuition equality for everybody in New Jersey.” He followed that up with a similar comment during his October 15 debate with Democrat Barbara Buono.

Immigrant students and activists were pleased the committee vote challenged the governor to follow through on his comments to the LLA.

“We will see whether he will stand by his comments and say equality for all or whether he will do conditional equality,” Giancarlo Tello, a board member with the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition, said Thursday evening.

Tello said the legislation, if signed by the governor, would allow him to return to school at Rutgers, where he is studying political science. The Bergen County resident has been attending part-time, but had to take the current semester off because of financial issues. He pays $2,700 per class, he said, which is twice what he would pay if the tuition equality bill becomes law, he said.

“It gives me hope and gives me and others a chance to stay in New Jersey and continue to get our education,” he said.

Critics of the legislation say it amounts to a subsidy. Ira Mehlman, the media director, for the national Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the state would be “taking scarce resources and giving them to people who are in the country illegally.” And while the students may warrant some sympathy, the “onus for this rests with the parents who broke the law.”

“These bills ask everyone else to bear the burden,” he said. “The situation these students find themselves is not the making of the people of New Jersey. It was made by the individual decisions made to break the law made by their parents.”

Supporters of the bill disagreed.

“This is the right thing to do from both a moral and economic perspective,” said Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), one of the prime sponsors. “It will make certain that all of our young people are given the chance to reach their potential and to make a positive impact in our state.”

A policy paper issued by the liberal New Jersey Policy Perspective before the hearing said that the current system prevents immigrant students from attending college and lead to what it calls mounting negative costs tied to continued poverty.

“Without tuition equity and access to financial aid, the door to higher education and a brighter future will likely remain closed to many undocumented New Jerseyans,” says Erika J. Nava, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective and author of the issue brief, said in a press release.

Sen. Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex), another prime sponsor of the legislation, said in a press release after the vote that the bill would help level the playing field for all students who have attended a New Jersey high school.

“This legislation is about equality and fairness,” she said. “It will ensure that all New Jersey students have a chance for a successful future, regardless of documentation. It will also help to build a strong and educated workforce and ensure that as we move our state forward, we are not leaving a population of hard-working and motivated New Jerseyans behind.”

Representatives from the state’s colleges and college teachers unions were supportive of the bill, saying it would allow students who want to go to school to attend college while boosting enrollment.

“This bill is good for the economy,” said Cid Wilson, a member of the board of trustees for Bergen County Community College and a representative with the Council of County Colleges. “It is good for our society. It is good for the community and it is the right thing to do.”

Perth Amboy Mayor Wilma Diaz, one of three urban mayors to testify on Thursday, called passing the bill a moral imperative.

“Whether or not they are here undocumented or illegally,” she said during the hearing, “the simple fact is that they are here ready and willing to contribute and to help build our communities, to reinvest and to give others after them an opportunity that should be given to them -- a fair shot.”

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