A proposal to make around 600 undocumented immigrants eligible for financial aid to attend New Jersey colleges is now one vote from reaching Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, after being approved Monday by the state Senate.

Under a 2013 state law, undocumented immigrants who graduate from New Jersey high schools qualify for in-state tuition rates. The proposal approved 26-10 Monday would make them eligible for financial aid programs, perhaps costing the state $4.5 million a year.

Plainfield resident Maria Del Cielo Mendez, a senior at Union County Magnet High School, says she’s been accepted into six colleges so far. But as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico here since age 3, she’s eligible for in-state tuition rates but not tuition aid grants.

“When this financial aid bill passes, undocumented students will know that their home, the state of New Jersey, will give them a chance,” Mendez said.

Erika Martinez, a resident of Elizabeth, is a senior at Union County Academy for Allied Health Sciences, member of the National Honor Society and an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador living in New Jersey since age 2. She said she took the same college boards and finished the same homework as classmates, only to find she’s unequal.

“It’s difficult to understand why I’ve worked just as hard as my classmates throughout my four years of high school, only to find New Jersey’s excellent state and private colleges and universities out of reach financially,” Martinez said.

Ten Republican senators voted against the financial aid bill, S699, while four Republicans joins joined 22 Democrats in supporting it.

None of the Republicans spoke against the bill on the Senate floor, but Republican State Committee state chairman Doug Steinhardt criticized the bill in a news release.

"We are a nation of immigrants, but also of laws. People here illegally should not be eligible for benefits available to citizens or those here legally,” Steinhardt said. “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."

A companion bill, S700, making clear New Jersey students who are citizens, and whose parents are undocumented, are eligible for loans, grants and scholarships, passed unanimously.

Backers of the financial-aid bill said it would help to retain such residents in New Jersey.

Speaking to a room of students who would benefit from the change, Senate President Steve Sweeney said too many kids have missed the opportunity to attend college because of the cost.

“We welcome you. We’re proud of you. We’re proud of how hard you’ve worked to get in this position, to be productive citizens in this state,” Sweeney said. “And we don’t want you to go to other states. We want you to stay here and make this state even greater.”

Nancy Cantor said Rutgers University enrolls around 400 undocumented students, more than half on the Newark campus, where she is chancellor.

“With this legislation, we have a chance to keep them in New Jersey, for college and for the long haul,” Cantor said.

The bill now heads to the full Assembly, where the higher education committee has already endorsed the idea.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said it doesn’t make sense that the state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on undocumented students through elementary and high schools – then cuts them off.

“From a pure economic point of view, after having invested so many dollars, why would we want to stop now?” Schaer said.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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