Thursday’s passage of what’s been called the Dream Act — which guarantees tuition equality to undocumented immigrants — has left advocates on both sides of the issue feeling slighted.
The bill, which will be signed on Friday, grants in-state tuition status at New Jersey public colleges to undocumented residents who have lived in the state for at least three years. It will effectively cut tuition in half for most of them.
But immigrant advocates are angry with the governor for vetoing the section of the bill that would have allowed students to qualify for the state Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) program.
Meanwhile, groups opposed to immigration reform, like New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, criticized the governor for caving in to political pressure and not doing enough to reduce the number of illegal residents in the state.
Once the bill is signed, New Jersey will become the 14th state to grant in-state tuition privileges to undocumented immigrant students. Others include New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland, and two of them — California and Rhode Island — allow eligible immigrants to apply for state higher-education aid.
The so-called Tuition Equality Act, S-2479, was approved 25-12 by the state Senate on November 18 and sent to the Assembly Budget Committee, which endorsed it last week.
The bill as originally passed would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education and apply for state-administered aid programs. The Assembly bill did not include the aid provision, which was added during the December 12 Budget Committee hearing and included as part of the bill that passed the full Assembly today by a 46-32 vote.
Maximum TAG grants range from $2,578 for county colleges to $9,104 at Rutgers and $10,562 for the New Jersey Institute for Technology, according to information on the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority website.
Gov. Chris Christie, who had told Latino groups during his gubernatorial reelection campaign that he supported tuition equality, criticized the Senate bill earlier this month and said he would veto it unless there were changes. He said granting access to aid was too generous and he was concerned that the legislation would allow out-of-state students attending New Jersey private schools to claim in-state status.
Breaking the Logjam
It looked as if the impasse would hold. But Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced a compromise on Thursday, an hour before the Assembly was scheduled to begin its final voting session before the Christmas break.
The bill would go forward in the Assembly and be sent to the governor’s desk. The governor would issue an immediate conditional veto, removing the aid provision, but leaving the rest of the bill intact, which he did. The Senate and Assembly would then vote immediately to accept the changes and the governor would sign the bill Thursday or Friday. That would allow immigrant students time to enroll in college and pay the in-state rates for the spring semester.
“This is a compromise that at least makes progress,” Sweeney said during the press conference.
The Assembly passed the bill 46-32 and sent it to the governor, who conditionally vetoed it as promised. The Senate voted 27-7 and the Assembly 50-26 to accept the governor’s recommendations and sent it back to the governor, who will sign it today.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, said during the Democratic press conference that the bill will “open the doors to equality and fairness for children who don’t know home anywhere else” but in New Jersey.
Sweeney agreed. He said Senate Democrats were committed to winning approval for the state aid provision, but that it was most important to address the tuition issue for the spring semester.
“At least young people going into January aren’t going to have to pay double,” Sweeney said. “That was the most important thing for us. Sending us back the conditional veto today and signing the bill today, making it effective immediately, is what I needed . . . ”
Christie, during a press conference announcing several personnel moves, said the bill provides tuition equality “responsibly and affordably.”
“The most important thing is that, for these young men and women in our state that we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in in K through 12 education, we are now going to give them an opportunity an affordable way to be able to continue their education,” he said.
“And if they do that, it will be to the benefit first and foremost of themselves, secondly to their families, and third to the family of New Jersey who will benefit from a more educated workforce to meet the challenges of the global economy,” he continued.
Giancarlo Tello, an activist with the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition, a group of undocumented students advocating for tuition equality and the passage of federal immigration reform, said during the Democratic press conference that the new tuition rules will allow him to return to college. Tello had to leave Bergen Community College because he could not afford the tuition.
But he also was critical of the governor for vetoing the aid provision. In-state tuition at many New Jersey schools remains out of reach for many immigrant students, he said, and excluding immigrant students from access to TAG grants perpetuates a tiered educational system.
“We deserve what our peers deserve because we are human beings and that’s how we should be treated,” he said. “Today we are begrudgingly accepting a conditional veto if that is what Gov. Christie decides to do. If Gov. Christie does decide to renege on his promise to our community, to the Latino and immigrant community at large. then for our community we will accept it but we are going to remember this.”
Ana Bonilla Martinez, a New Brunswick resident and organizer with the Wind in the Spirit immigrant resource center in Morristown, said vetoing the aid provision “continues discriminatory actions against taxpaying, undocumented residents of New Jersey.”
“We know that we pay close to a half a billion dollars in taxes and we know we have such great support coming from bishops in New Jersey, coming from unions coming from schools, from universities, from colleges, from important public figures,” she said during the press conference.
“What more does (Christie) want? We are taxpaying residents. We are New Jerseyans. We call this our home, This was the best bill for New Jersey and we are only getting half of it,” she said.
Christie, however, was quick to dismiss the complaint, calling the compromise a “step forward” that will offer immigrant students “a significant savings.”
“If they wanted more,” he said. “I’m sorry. But they are getting a lot more than they have ever gotten before.”
For groups like New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, the compromise offers immigrant students far too much.
“The battle is over, our side lost and I am very disappointed in the outcome,” said Gayle Kesselman, the group’s president. “But the state of New Jersey is actually the loser.”
She said the rules of the agreement — that students must be residents and have attended high school in the state for at least three years — were unenforceable.
“Who is going to enforce that?” she asked. “Who is going to check that? The same government employees who enforce our immigration laws? Every application for in-state tuition will be rubber stamped and nobody will be turned away.”
David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers, said it was not surprising that both sides were critical of the compromise, but he did not think it would affect Christie’s national ambitions. It was more important, he said, that the governor not be seen as having broken a promise to the Latino community, because “one of the arguments he is making is that he is a Republican who can reach out to Latinos.”
“It is to his benefit to get it out of the way so he can say, ‘I kept my promise,’” Redlawsk said.
He said it is too early to guess at Christie’s strategy and that it may depend upon the final makeup of the Republican field. If there are multiple conservatives, then he can play to the more moderate elements of his party and hope for the right wing to split its vote, Redlawsk said.
“The (Tuition Equality Act) may position him well so he can say to Republicans ‘we have to be able to reach beyond white males,’” he said.
In the meantime, advocates for the aid component of the legislation said they remain committed, but acknowledged that the governor’s opposition makes it unlikely that it can be approved in the near future.
Ruiz said Democrats will “reinstate the TAG component,” but it may have to wait four years, until after the governor has left office.
“The senate president and I made a commitment that this will happen,” she said.
Sweeney agreed. He said Christie has “made his position clear on this” and Democrats needed to take the best deal available to ensure that students would see a tuition break in the spring. Progress has been made, he added, and that the state is “on the 20-yard line.”
“We’re not going to stop until we score a touchdown,” he said. “But the commitment between my colleagues here is to have full equality. It’s coming, and we will finish th