There was an air of celebration as Gov. Phil Murphy prepared to sign a bill granting financial aid at state colleges and universities to unauthorized immigrants.
Four and a half years ago, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill allowing the unauthorized to attend public college at in-state tuition rates, but Christie only went halfway. He vetoed a piece of the bill that would have made those students also eligible for Tuition Assistance Grants, known as TAG grants.
On Wednesday, Murphy finished the job.
“Because of what we are doing in a few minutes, I hope both of you and all of your peers know that New Jersey stands by you and will continue to do so to let you live your dreams here, in your home state,” Murphy said.
His comments were addressed to two students who spoke before him. Esder Chong was born in South Korea, raised in Highland Park from age six, and is a student athlete and leader.
“Our federal government continues to launch unprecedented attacks on immigrant young people, like me and Cielo. We cannot be silent as ICE targets immigrants, including dreamers like me,” Chong said.
Maria Cielo Mendez, born in Mexico, raised from age three in Plainfield, is a high school senior accepted at six colleges and lacking money for tuition.
“Because dreamers like me are barred from federal and state financial aid, even though I have always been at the top of my class, college has always felt out of reach. Today that changes,” Mendez said.
The signing was held at Rutgers-Newark, which Murphy called the most diverse campus in America.
Supporters packed the room as he signed the bill. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz has been working on immigrant issues for 10 years.
“We invest in these children in the K-12 system and when they graduate, many at the top of their class, we turn our backs on them and we pretend that they don’t exist,” Ruiz said.
With the signing, New Jersey becomes the 9th state to offer financial aid to the unauthorized.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer says that’s 600-plus students who will be added to the TAG program’s 66,000.
“The total cost to the state of New Jersey for these Dreamers as part of the TAG program is about $5 million. Ladies and gentlemen, for each taxpayer in this state that will cost 17 cents,” Schaer said.
An immigrant student asked how Murphy will protect him from Trump administration policies.
“We will do literally everything within my person and our administration’s power to have your back. Period, full stop. We will not let you down. With that, let’s go sign this baby,” Murphy answered.
This was another feel-good event for Murphy. If there is friction in his world, you don’t see it at his public events.