N.J. bill to offer in-state tuition, financial aid to immigrants in the country illegally gains momentum

(NJ.COM)   After a decade-long effort by advocates, a bill that would charge in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who grew up in New Jersey appears well on its way to landing on the governor’s desk.

The state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today voted eight to three with one abstention to approve the measure (S2479), which advocates say will affect tens of thousands of New Jersey residents.

“This community has waited long enough. Let’s not look for excuses to say no. Let’s look for reasons to say yes,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has lent his name to the bill as a prime sponsor.

The bill now heads for a vote in the full Senate on Monday, where it’s expected to pass. Assembly leaders say they expect to pass it soon as well.

Under the bill, undocumented immigrants who attended high school in New Jersey for three or more years, graduated, and filed an affidavit saying they plan to legalize their immigration status as soon as legally possible would be able to get lower in-state tuition rates at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities.

The undocumented immigrant students would also be eligible for state financial aid under the Senate version of the bill. Incoming Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), a Cuban immigrant, said today that he expects the Assembly version will incorporate that aspect — which had been part of a separate bill —as well.

Advocates said it doesn’t make sense for the state to provide K-12 education to undocumented students — which federal law requires — and then refuse to treat them the same as citizens once they graduate.

“After having educated these students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, what purpose does it serve to penalize them by not allowing them to better themselves?” said Frank Argote-Freyre, president of the Latino Action Network.

In-state tuition is available to undocumented immigrants in 16 other states.

Giancarlo Tello, 23, immigrated to New Jersey from Peru when he was six years old. He didn’t find out he was undocumented until his sophomore year in high school, when his mother told him he could not apply for a driver’s license. Now, he attends Rutgers-Newark part-time and pays out-of-state tuition.

“If you consider me a fellow resident of New Jersey, if you believe I deserve an education, a chance at the future, then I urge you all to vote yes on this bill,” Tello told the committee.

Three elected officials from cities with large Hispanic populations — Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz and Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp — were also in Trenton to push for the bill.

“We all agree that in order to break that cycle of poverty that exists in this country and exists in places like Jersey City, it really starts with investing in education,” Fulop said at a press conference before the committee meeting. “To invest in a child’s education K through 12 and then turn your back on them is really foolish.”

All eight Democrats on the committee voted in favor of the legislation. And Gov. Chris Christie — while refusing to answer detailed questions about the bill — has indicated he supports the idea. Nevertheless, three out of the committee’s four Republicans voted no, while one abstained.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said she abstained because a loophole in the bill could allow out-of-state residents – regardless of their immigration status – to qualify for in-state tuition if they attend private high school in New Jersey. She also said New Jersey residents could move to other states for years, then return and qualify for in-state tuition because they went to high school here.

“I don’t want to vote against the bill. I’m just going to abstain today and hopefully by the time we get to the floor Monday we can find a resolution for those two issues,” Beck said.

But state Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris), who voted no, said he didn’t think it would be fair that “a struggling family of American citizens in a neighboring state would pay more than an undocumented student.”

Only one member of the public testified against the bill. Pat DeFilippis, a New Jersey representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, read a letter from the organization’s state and local director, Dale Wilcox.

“Many New Jersey schools, colleges and universities are experiencing severe budget shortages as a result of the weakened economy and the state debt crisis,” read the letter, which was addressed to Christie. “Granting in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens would only serve to further damage and strain delicate budgets and impose additional burdens on New Jersey taxpayers.”

Christie’s action on the bill is uncertain. He worked hard to appeal to Hispanic voters and won 51 percent of their votes in his re-election last week, according to exit polls.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a prime sponsor of the bill, said the governor had not disclosed to her any decision on the measure.


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