Legislation sponsored by Senate Education Chair Teresa Ruiz and Senate Higher Education Chair Sandra Cunningham to ensure that New Jersey students born in the United States are provided equal access to college, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, was approved today by a Senate committee.

The Higher Education Citizenship Equality Act would reverse a state policy that prevents New Jersey students – who are born in the country and, therefore, are U.S. citizens – from accessing financial aid offered under state tuition assistance programs if their parents are undocumented immigrants.

The measure would also provide that New Jersey students born in the United States are eligible for in-state tuition rates, provided they have resided in the state for at least 12 consecutive months prior to enrollment and that their parents submit certain income tax documentation to the institution.

“The practice of denying students state aid based on their parents’ immigration status is discriminatory and unjust,” says Ruiz. “It unfairly prevents U.S. citizens from accessing the educational opportunities they are entitled to and that their classmates are being provided. Moreover, this policy is contrary to our goal of ensuring that all students have the tools they need to attain educational success. It is unacceptable and should be corrected.”

A New Jersey student, who was born in New York, was denied financial aid last year by the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) because her mother is an undocumented immigrant. Specifically, HESAA stated the reason for denying the student Tuition Aid Assistance (TAG) eligibility was that her parents were “not legal New Jersey residents.” The ACLU of New Jersey and the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic filed an appeal of HESAA’s decision in June with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, arguing that the state cannot deny a student assistance based on the status of his or her parents. The appeal also contended the state violated the state and federal constitutions’ guarantee of Equal Protection. Oral argument in the case is scheduled for this Wednesday before the Appellate Division.

Cunningham says, “Students born in this country are constitutionally entitled to all of the benefits provided to their peers, irrespective of their parents’ immigration status. A state policy that deprives a particular population of students of an equal opportunity for state financial aid is fundamentally flawed at best. At worst, it appears to be a violation of the state and federal constitutions that is worthy of scrutiny and in need of a legislative fix.”