A bill that would allow New Jersey high school graduates to qualify for in-state tuition regardless of their immigration status cleared its first hurdle Monday, though it remains doubtful Gov. Christie will sign it into law.
The Tuition Equality Act () was released by the Assembly Budget Committee on a party-line 8-4 vote after a two-and-a-half-hour hearing before a packed committee room.
The New Jersey debate comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider a comprehensive immigration reform package. President Barack Obama is pushing for the legislation, which would tighten border security and offer a pathway to citizenship for many immigrants who currently are undocumented.
The president has said that that immigration reform is a primary goal of his second term. After federal reform efforts failed last year, he signed an executive order in June 2012 as a stop-gap measure, creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects immigrant children who lack legal status -- many of whom would be covered by the New Jersey tuition bill -- from being deported for at least two years.
During the committee hearing, both sides referenced the new federal legislation. Advocates said it would open up potential aid options because it would allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status and get work documentation. And they pointed to recent polling saying New Jersey residents favor reform.
Republicans, however, said the issue should be handled at the national level.
The Tuition Equality Act would allow students who are undocumented immigrants but have received a New Jersey high school diploma to qualify for in-state tuition at New Jersey public colleges. Under the bill students “without lawful immigration status” would need to have attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years and graduated from it or received the “equivalent of a high school diploma” in New Jersey.
Students would need to be attending a public college, either as new students or as returning ones, during the 2013-2014 academic year and file an affidavit with their school saying they have submitted an application to legalize their immigration status or that they planned to file an application as soon as they are eligible to do so. Students who attend county colleges in their home counties would be eligible for the in-county rates, as well.
A similar bill was OK’d by the Assembly Appropriations Committee in January 2010 but was not brought up for a full Assembly vote and expired at the end of the session. It was reintroduced the same January and referred to the Assembly Higher Education Committee, though no action was taken and it died at the end of the 2010-2011 session.
Tom Hester, spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, said the current version of the bill “has been in the works for quite some time” and that the timing was appropriate “as students get ready to finalize tuition plans for September.” He said there is no timetable for sending the bill to the full Assembly.
The bill has the support of groups like the New Jersey chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Federation of Teachers, NJ Citizen, numerous labor unions, and the NJ Dream Act Coalition, an organization of immigrant students. The organizations representing the state’s college presidents and its county colleges have also endorsed the bill. Fifteen other states have tuition equity laws in place and two others provide equity through policy agreements.
Advocates say passing the bill is a matter of fairness. There are about 40,000 young adults who entered the United States before the age of 16 living in New Jersey, who have graduated from state high schools, they say. These students are forced by the current system to pay significantly higher tuition or not attend college at all. They say this a moral inequity and lost opportunity for the state, because it would mean better jobs for students who would then offer greater contributions to New Jersey’s economy.
Critics say the bill would put at a disadvantage immigrants and others who came into the country legally, increase taxes, and create competition for limited space in the state’s four-year schools.
The governor, through a spokesman, said he would not comment on the legislation until it passes and can be reviewed. However, his office released several previous comments made by the governor, which indicate he was likely to veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
“Listen, this issue came up during the transition,” he told a town hall meeting in Toms River in 2011 when asked about the issue. “They tried to pass a law like that during the transition -- it didn’t pass, but I made it very clear during the transition that if I were governor at the time I would veto it.”
In the past, the governor has said it would cost the state money it does not have and would be unfair to the rest of the state. The issue, he has said, should be addressed by the federal government as part of a larger federal immigration reform package.
New Jersey is wrestling with these issues just as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider S744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act -- the compromise legislation drafted by the so-called gang of eight, a bipartisan group of Senators that includes NJ Sen. Robert Menendez. The Senate voted 82-15 on June 11 to move forward, preventing a filibuster. Menendez and Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, who was appointed by Christie to replace the late Frank Lautenberg earlier this month, voted in favor of cloture.
For many Republicans, the U.S. Senate is the proper place to consider immigration, rather than at the state level.
“The problems we are discussing have highlighted that our immigration system is broken,” Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) said in casting his vote against the bill. “We do need comprehensive immigration reform and I do think the federal government has an obligation to lead on that issue.”
Webber called the Tuition Equality Act unfair to taxpayers, who would need to pay for the added student enrollment, and to students who were legally documented or citizens. He said those students would be forced into even greater competition for school admissions. He also had concerns that the bill might not be limited to New Jersey citizens, because private schools in New Jersey accept out-of-state students, and that it lacked enforcement mechanisms to ensure against fraud.
“The truth is we have to make choices,” he said. “We don’t have unlimited resources.”
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), one of the bill’s primary sponsors, disagreed saying the bill only created a level playing field for all students in the state. He said that college and university admissions offices were equipped to ensure compliance by students.
He called the current system an “obstacle” for many students.
“This helps them,” Johnson said. “It is not their fault that their parents brought them here. They attended the New Jersey school system and they should be able to pay college tuition at in-state rates.”
New Jersey Policy Perspective, the liberal policy think tank based in Trenton, issued a brief on the Tuition Equity Act on Monday. According to NJPP, many otherwise-qualified New Jersey high school graduates are not attending college because they are being asked to pay more than twice what they should be paying. At Rutgers, according to the NJPP policy brief, “the in-state rate is less than half of the rate for out-of-state students.” At the state’s county colleges, in-state tuition rates are between 30 percent and 50 percent the out-of-state rates, NJPP reports.
“The primary reason that undocumented students who finish high school do not go onto college is the high cost,” the policy brief says. But “(t)he decision not to attend college has a snowball effect, making it harder for individuals to lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class. The evidence is indisputable that receiving a degree leads to increased opportunity and earning potential.”
The status quo, according to NJPP, has its greatest impact on low-income students. NJPP says 43.2 percent of the children of immigrants live in low-income households.
“(F)ailing to pass tuition equity would keep a college education out of the reach of many striving students by forcing them to pay non-resident tuition rates,” NJPP says. The result, the report said, could be the creation of a permanent immigrant underclass with little hope of economic mobility.
Donna Chiera, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents a portion of the state’s teachers and college professors, agrees. In her testimony, she said teachers make a promise to students that “if they learn to read and write, to be good citizens, to do math, then they can do whatever they want.”
“These students came to our schools, came to our classrooms and did what we asked them to do and now they can’t afford college,” she said. “Because they are not getting an opportunity to go to college and get the opportunity to get a better paying job, we are paying down the line.”
The committee room was packed with advocates for the legislation on Monday, many of whom wore shirts with slogans like “No human being is illegal” and “Standing up for the dream.” Testimony started with two critics of the bill, who said it would increase taxes and put “American-born children at a disadvantage.”
Jeffrey Hastings, a member of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, said it “subsidizes illegal immigration” and would reward undocumented parents for their immigration status.
“If you grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, what does that say to those who have played by the rules?” he said.
“You are creating competition for scarce resources at New Jersey universities and taking seats away from others that are legal or are U.S. citizens. It promotes illegal behavior.”
Advocates for the bill called that a mischaracterization.
Kemika Bennett, who came to United States when she was eight-and-a-half from Jamaica, called the language used by some of the critics “dehumanizing and denigrating.”
“All New Jersey students should have access to higher education,” she said.
Marisol Conde Hernandez moved to Princeton when she was one from Mexico and graduated from South Brunswick High School in 2005. She worked her way through Rutgers University, paying the out-of-state tuition and graduated summa cum laude. She currently works as a bartender and will start at Rutgers Law School in the fall. She said critics of the Tuition Equity Act were trafficking in myth.
“I’ve heard these same, age-old counter arguments the past 10 years that this bill has been sitting in the legislature,” she said. “But I have a question: Can I contribute more to you as a bartender or as an attorney?”
The reality, she said, is that many of undocumented students come from “families in already impoverished minimum wage jobs or less that can try to pool very little amounts of money in order to send one child” to college.
“We have students … who are on the verge of not enrolling in college because of the tuition,” she said. “Let us continue to contribute and let us contribute more.”
Carlos Rojas, another resident who testified, said that not passing the legislation would be to “deny through silent consent” opportunities to immigrant students and to continue the “discrimination against people who live in our community.”
“This is a matter of equity and fair play,” he said.