Then-Gov. Chris Christie backed the in-state tuition measure, but vetoed the section on financial aid.
On Monday, the New Jersey Senate revisited that measure, bill S-699, and passed it 26-10.
Bergmann: Another inducement for the undocumented
"Winning today means that I can go to college, and in four years I might live in a country that accepts me and my whole family," said Maria Del Cielo Mendez, 18, during a news conference Monday at the Statehouse.
Mendez, a so-called "Dreamer” and a member of Make the Road New Jersey, was a toddler when her family brought her to New Jersey from Mexico without legal status. Now a senior at Union County Magnet High School, she applied to several colleges. So far, Mendez has received six acceptance letters, but she does not qualify for financial aid under the current law because she immigration status.
That could change this session. The bill now goes to the Assembly for a vote as A-3467. Then it’s up to Gov. Phil Murphy, a staunch proponent of immigrant rights, to sign it into law.
The state Senate also unanimously approved bill S-700, which would make U.S. citizens with unauthorized immigrant parents eligible for financial aid.
The legislation faces some resistance, mostly along party lines, from state lawmakers and others who argue the state can't afford to open up the financial aid pool to students without legal status.
NJ GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt said students without legal status should not get the same benefits as those living in the country legally.
“Taxpayer dollars are a scarce resource and we need Governor Murphy and Democrats in the legislature to prioritize their spending, just like every responsible household in New Jersey does,” he wrote in a statement.
Immigrant rights advocates, led by students within the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition, lobbied for in-state tuition and financial aid for unauthorized immigrants five years ago. Christie stood in the way.
State Sens. Teresa Ruiz, Sandra B. Cunningham and Nellie Pou introduced the financial aid bill in early January. It was cleared through the Senate Higher Education and Senate Budget & Appropriation committees.
"College access and affordability for all of New Jersey's students has been the focus of our work in the Senate Higher Education committee," Cunningham said Monday during the news conference. "We continue to support every effort to do the right and fair thing for our students."
There are an estimated 22,000 young unauthorized immigrants in New Jersey receiving protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Among them is Giovana Zacatelco, 22, of Neptune. She studies biochemistry at Seton Hall University, but took off this semester for financial reasons.
“I can’t afford to pay $11,000 a semester, and I have one year left,” she said.
In high school, Zacatelco said she wasn’t sure whether she would even be accepted into a college because of her immigration status. When she got her acceptance letter, her parents vowed to pay her tuition even though the price was steep.
Zacatelco said she wants to go to medical school and become a doctor.
“I think that doctors play a huge role in people’s lives,” she said. “I feel like right now if I was to become a doctor, I would help the immigrant community because we don’t have access to health care.”
Frank Argote-Freyre, head of the Latino Coalitions of New Jersey, teaches Latin American history at Kean University. He says he knows students without legal status who have excelled academically but taken multiple breaks from school because they cannot afford tuition.
"They're often forced to study for one semester and take another semester off so they can afford tuition," he said.
“They are investing in this nation, and we need to invest in them," the Freehold Borough resident said during a committee hearing earlier this month.
The bill would expand access to financial aid programs for the following students, regardless of legal status:
- Students who attended a New Jersey high school for three or more years
- Students who graduated from a New Jersey high school or received the equivalent of a diploma
- Students who registered or enrolled in a public university no earlier than the 2013-14 academic year
- Students without legal status who file affidavits with the college/university stating they have applied for legal status or plan to do so as soon as they are eligible
- Erika Nava, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, notes that not every young immigrant qualifies for financial aid. The bill just give those families a chance to apply and be considered on the basis of financial need like other New Jersey families.
New Jersey spent $425.9 million in financial aid for eligible college students this fiscal year, according to the Office of Legislative Services. This amounted to roughly $7,451 per student attending a four-year college or university.
An OLS analyst estimates it would cost another $4.47 million, a 1 percent increase.
How did OLS get that number? The analyst cited a 2015 report showing that there were 600 students without legal status who qualified for in-state tuition at a four-year school in the fall semester.
So 600 students multiplied by the average financial aid package, $7,451, comes out to the final estimate.
That doesn't mean there will be only 600 students this or next academic year, nor does it mean all of those students will qualify for financial aid, or at least the average amount.
The analyst acknowledges this: "While the OLS does not have sufficient information to determine the amount of financial assistance for which students would become eligible, existing data suggest that the fiscal impact would be small relative to current appropriations."