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Dream Act Passes, Grants In-State Tuition to Undocumented Immigrants

But compromise and conditional veto leave advocates on both sides of the issue unhappy with outcome

Credit: Amanda Brown

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.

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