Can a dream come true in New Jersey?

Linda Stamato
Linda Stamato

By Linda Stamato

Tuition rates at public colleges differ between those who are residents of the state, who pay “in-state” tuition, and those who are not; they pay “out-of-state” tuition.   Some residents, however, are less equal than others.  These are the young people who are not citizens, the so-called “undocumented,” who were brought to this country by their parents who entered illegally; they are also the promising prospective students who are accepted for study because they are qualified and will benefit from that education.

Why do they pay “out-of-state” tuition rates at some New Jersey public colleges? Because we have no state policy that requires all resident state students to be treated the same.

There are no federal, state or local laws that prohibit public colleges from admitting and enrolling undocumented students, so how do we justify charging them differential rates?  Local college boards set admissions policies and tuition levels.  Accordingly, practices vary among and within states.

The nation came close to passing the Dream Act two years ago that would have permitted certain immigrant students who have grown up in the U.S. to apply for temporary legal status and to eventually obtain permanent legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military; and would eliminate a federal provision that penalizes states that provide in-state tuition without regard to immigration status.

Given the gridlock in Congress now, though, the DREAM Act, is, well, but a dream.

Options for undocumented students, moreover, are limited. Many of these students come from low-income families and find college costs prohibitively high. And, too, they cannot qualify for any federally or state funded financial aid, including loans, grants, scholarships and work-study programs.

Unsurprisingly, many states have moved independently to take action. But, not New Jersey!  New Jersey does have its own version of the Dream Act.  It’s called the Tuition Equality Act.  Where is it?  Languishing in the State Legislature when it should be sitting on Chris Christie’s desk, awaiting his signature.  Mind you, he doesn’t appear to be looking for it.  He has been prompted, by demonstrations, letters, telephone calls, but there has been no response. His silence, it’s clear, speaks volumes.

A Star Ledger editorial of a few days back, “Ducking the Dream Act,”  tries to shame the Legislature into getting that legislation to him.  It cites an Eagleton poll that found an overwhelming 80 percent of New Jerseyans supporting the provisions of the federal DREAM Act (87 percent of Democrats; 77 percent of Independents and even 70 percent of Republicans).

How close to a no-brainer can you get?

Public colleges in other states, as noted, have long welcomed and admitted undocumented students. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court first considered how education systems should treat undocumented students in the case of Plyler v. Doe, in 1982, that struck down a 1975 Texas law seeking to deny undocumented children a free elementary and secondary public education by charging them tuition to attend that state’s schools. Two decades after the implementation of this decision, Texas became the first state to successfully pass a tuition-related bill addressing undocumented students’ access to all in-state public higher education. In brief, undocumented students in Texas are treated the same as legal residents, providing they meet specific residency and graduation requirements.

Indeed, during the last presidential primary campaign, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a potential contender in the next round, if one can believe the sages, had this to say about educating undocumented students:


“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart…. We need to be educating these children…..”

He shifted his position a bit, and dropped his enthusiasm, let’s say, when he encountered the rage of the crazies, but, still, he stood by his support of the policy that charges the same, in-state, tuition rates to children of undocumented residents as the children of legal residents pay.

At the time, Chris Christie, attacked Perry, and said the following:

“I don’t believe that for those people who came here illegally, we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition, their education…And let me be very clear from my perspective: That is not a heartless position that is a common sense position.”

I don’t think the public, at least in New Jersey, has been otherwise aware of the governor’s stance on the issue.  Certainly, he is silent now.  (Wonder if any of those campaign videos, in Spanish, will articulate his position?)

Since there is no state policy, colleges and universities decide for themselves and most are “letting well-enough alone” which means they either ignore immigration status–a variation on the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ theme, they charge out-of-state tuition rates, or, in the case of a few, charge all students who reside in the county or state, with or without documents, the same tuition and fee rates (as Texas does).

Until or unless the federal government acts, it’s up to the states.

New Jersey ought to have a statewide policy, pending federal action. The Star Ledger had it just right in November of last year:

“…there’s no sense in punishing young people for the choices their parents made, or depriving the country of the hard work these young people are eager to do. Like a lot of immigration reform ideas, the DREAM Act started out with bipartisan support that is now shaky. But those fence-sitters might consider the words of one of their rising stars. Just two years ago, before he stepped into the governor’s seat and the national spotlight, then-U.S. Attorney General for New Jersey Chris Christie spoke to a church group in Dover. “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” he said. “The whole phrase of ‘illegal immigrant’ connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.”

Let’s hope GOP leaders will recall Christie’s sentiments and guide their party members out of the dark — toward the DREAM opportunities young immigrants deserve…”

And, wouldn’t it be sweet if Christie himself recalled his own sentiments and lead his state on this compelling issue of fairness, moving to create a level playing field for students?

With editorial of this week, the Star Ledger has it right again! This time around, though, it’s the Democrats holding out. Come on Democratic Legislature, get this done and get it to Christie’s desk.  Let’s not make another generation of young people pay more than they should or miss out on an education altogether.  Timidity is not becoming.

All the students and their families are seeking is to be treated the same.  Let’s do the fair, the right thing, and act to make their dream—our common dream, I’d say–a reality.

Bob Braun’s Ledger welcomes contributions.


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