By KIRK SEMPLE
Published: December 19, 2013 72 Comments
The New Jersey Legislature approved legislation on Thursday that would allow students without legal immigration status to pay in-state college tuition. Gov. Chris Christie planned to sign it on Friday, a spokesman said.
The bill’s passage was assured after Mr. Christie, a Republican, struck a deal with Democratic lawmakers, who agreed to a demand of his that they change the bill to remove a provision allowing undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid programs.
“This is what compromise looks like,” the governor said at a news conference in Trenton after the accord was revealed.
The legislation, commonly known as the Dream Act, had become a political wedge between the state’s large immigrant population and Mr. Christie, who has long tried to balance the sometimes-conflicting demands of being the chief executive of a liberal-leaning state while also gathering support for a possible Republican presidential candidacy.
After the deal was struck, the State Assembly passed a bill that would have allowed certain immigrants without legal status to qualify for in-state tuition as well as financial aid. The Senate approved an identical bill last month.
But in keeping with the terms of the compromise, Mr. Christie blocked the measure with a conditional veto that included a demand for the removal of the financial aid provision. Under a conditional veto, a bill is rejected unless the Legislature agrees to the changes or overrides the veto with a two-thirds majority in both chambers.
This legislative choreography was the culmination of years of lobbying by immigrants and their advocates for so-called tuition equality in New Jersey.
With Mr. Christie’s signature, New Jersey will join at least 17 other states where in-state tuition is available to some immigrant students without legal status, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Three states — California, New Mexico and Texas — allow those immigrants access to state financial aid.
During Mr. Christie’s re-election campaign this year, he spoke favorably of tuition equality. But after winning by a landslide, helped by the support of about half of Hispanic voters, he made comments on the issue that drew the criticism of the bill’s supporters, who accused him of waffling.
Mr. Christie took the opportunity of the compromise to strike back at his critics, saying that his position had always remained consistent. “Shame on all the people — shame on you — who accused me and others of playing politics with this issue,” he said. “You were wrong.”
The compromise bill will allow access to in-state tuition for immigrants without legal status who have graduated from a New Jersey high school after at least three years of attendance.
Mr. Christie said the legislation would become effective immediately, allowing students to take advantage of it in time for the spring semester.
Supporters of the measure cheered the agreement but vowed to continue pushing for legislation to allow some immigrants lacking legal status to receive state tuition assistance.
“Today is a historic day in New Jersey, but the fight is not over,” Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said in a statement.
“His veto will put up a roadblock for many of New Jersey’s best and brightest students who cannot afford the skyrocketing cost of a college education.”
Mr. Christie said on Thursday that he was concerned that opening state tuition assistance programs to undocumented immigrants would potentially turn New Jersey into what he called “a magnet state,” drawing out-of-state students wanting to take advantage of the state’s generosity. “I care about taking care of New Jersey kids,” he said, “whether they’re citizens or undocumented.”
Supporters of the legislation have argued that people brought to the country as children should not be penalized for their parents’ actions, and that increasing access to higher education will encourage more immigrants to excel in high school and add to the state’s highly skilled work force.
But opponents have feared that the measure would cost the state money and college slots that would otherwise go to help native-born students and immigrants with legal status.