NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Last month, New Brunswick became the fourth New Jersey municipality to endorse tuition equity for undocumented state residents, joining Passaic, Jersey City and Plainfield.
And yesterday, the bill that would make the change New Brunswick's government is calling for passed a big hurdle, when it was approved by the Assembly's budget committee. It still must be taken up by the State Senate and approved by both houses of government before it is sent to the Governor.
Christie has not said yet whether he will sign the bill into law if it makes it to his desk.
But New Brunswick's five-member City Council made it clear what they want to happen, when they endorsed the proposal and voted spontaneously and unanimously in favor of a resolution calling on the state to pass such a law at their May 1 meeting.
In doing so, the city hopes to "[let] state legislators know there is wide spread support," according to a press release from the NJ Tuition Equity campaign. "The bill would allow Jersey raised undocumented students that meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates and possibly for state financial aid."
Currently, undocumented students must pay out of state tuition, almost double the in-state rate, regardless of how long they have resided in the state.
The criteria in the legislation would require for the student to have attended high school in the state, graduated from the high school or have obtained a GED, registered or have enrolled in a public university no earlier than 2013 and pledge to work towards gaining legal immigration status in the near future.
With 49.9% of Latinos in the New Brunswick population, 36.2% of which are foreign born, many children in the city could be greatly impacted by the legislation, said Council President Rebecca Escobar.
"New Brunswick has 80% of students that are of Latino decent. Some schools have more than 90% representation of Latinos in their schools," Escobar said. "I think this is an issue that affects our kids every day."
Attending the council meeting were a number of undocumented New Brunswick residents who demonstrated the necessity for the legislation by sharing their personal experiences being forced to pay out-of-state or international rates, even though they grew up in New Jersey.
New Brunswick resident and NBHS graduate Cynthia Cruz was required to pay an additional $14,000 each year for her tuition, as the going rate for an out-of-state resident is nearly double the in-state rate. Cruz said she was less than two years old when she was brought to New Brunswick and has lived in the city for the past 19 years.
"When I reached eighth grade was when I realized I was undocumented… Due to being undocumented, I did not qualify for the scholarship."
"Luckily, Middlesex [County Community College] did not charge me out-of-state tuition."
Cruz wasn't so lucky when she transfered to Rutgers, one of many state schools that currently denies undocumented students an opportunity to qualify for in-state tuition.
Twelve other states have already changed laws to give undocumented residents the opportunity to qualify for the resident rates at public colleges, including Texas, California, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Washington, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Maryland.
"This is an issue that is affecting not only affecting myself but thousands across the city of New Brunswick and hundreds of thousands across the nation. It is an issue that needs to be fixed at a state level… It's just something that will help us excel through education and out of poverty," she said.
Marisol Conde-Hernandez, a local immigrants rights activist who was honored on the floor of the Assembly earlier this year, said the legislation has significant implications for future students and that the campaign to pass it has gained support from “hundreds of civic, religious and social organizations and institutions.”
"In New Jersey, we have the fifth highest number of undocumented immigrants in the country, the fifth highest. We have about 40,000 that are graduates or…potential college students that are effectively barred from attending institutions of higher education simply because they are being charged double the tuition rates of the New Jersey resident," Conde-Hernandez said.
She said it is often difficult for students to be able to change their status due to the systematic obstacles that are often encountered on the path to citizenship.
"Currently as it stands the affidavit that this bill requires is a message to the state that the student has intent to adjust their immigration status.
"The reason why the 65,000 students graduating from high schools every year in the country are not able to adjust their status is because of the big bureaucracy, outdated, inefficient system that is immigration policy, which is being reviewed and revised hopefully this year."
Students also face monetary difficulties, she said, as the fees and attorney rates prove to be financial burdens.
"These students attended high schools in New Jersey and are just looking for the opportunity to continue their education at New Jersey colleges and universities. Their dreams of a better life start with the opportunity at a better education," said Sacred Heart community liaison, Ana G. Bonilla-Martinez in the press release.
New Brunswick resident and Rutgers University student, Jose Sibaja, said there is a connection with issues surrounding gangs and drugs in the city, with the option of college offering a different path for the students affected by these issues.
Sibaja said he sees the high school he graduated from as one that does not instill a strong will to attend college among the students.
"Giving kids an incentive for them to go to school, I think, is a very important thing, as a civilized society, to do," he said.
"These kids have been living here, this is their community, their parents are here, they know nothing else but New Jersey, the US, New Brunswick."