NEWARK – Undocumented immigrants raised in New Jersey can now apply for state financial aid programs to attend New Jersey colleges.

The law was signed Wednesday and takes effect starting with the fall semester, and the New Jersey Alternative Financial Aid Application was immediately posted on the state Higher Education Student Assistance Authority website. (Click here.)

The new law makes immigrants brought to the country illegally as children eligible for the same programs, such as Tuition Aid Grants and the Educational Opportunity Fund, as citizens who meet income eligibility thresholds.

They must have attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, graduated from high school or received the equivalent of a high school diploma in New Jersey and file an affidavit stating they will file an application to legalize their immigration status. Males must also register for Selective Service.

“We know New Jerseyans support the ability of our DREAMers to not only remain in our state but to become a strong and contributing part of our society and our economy,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “By allowing them to not only go to college but to qualify for financial assistance, we are living up to that ideal.”

Rutgers University-Newark junior Esder Chong, an undocumented immigrant from South Korea raised in Highland Park since age 6, has managed to afford tuition by getting private scholarships. She wonders how many students – and would-be future doctors, lawyers and senators – dropped out because they couldn’t afford it.

“Today we open the doors to higher education for DREAMers like us. Today we say, ‘Enough is enough, and we are here to stay,’” Chong said.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said the new law enables people to achieve things they otherwise couldn’t afford – and will lead to a better economy and tax revenues.

“Not only are we fulfilling a dream and an aspiration for individuals, but we are underlining the dream that is New Jersey,” Schaer said. “The dream that people will have opportunity. The dream that people will have the ability to achieve their dreams. And the state benefits.”

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said the new law is fundamentally wrong for citizens and taxpayers.

“We are a compassionate state and want to see every student succeed and reach his or her full potential," Webber said. "But we and our taxpayers have limited resources, and enormous educational benefits already are provided to non-citizens. Compassion does not compel us to provide limitless public benefits to anyone who finds himself within our borders."

Asked about criticism that the new law makes non-citizens eligible for aid some citizens can’t get because they exceed income eligibility thresholds, Gov. Phil Murphy said: “Come on.”

“I would invite any of those folks who had that attitude, beginning with our president, to come into this room and allow me or any of us to say, ‘This is the United States of America,’” Murphy said.

Since 2014, undocumented immigrants have been eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at New Jersey public colleges. Murphy said there are currently 759 people paying the lower in-state rates because of that law, including 471 at Rutgers University and 288 at other institutions.

But Murphy is sticking with a $4.47 million cost estimate for the expansion of financial aid eligibility, even though that counts on providing 600 additional Tuition Aid Grants – the number of students who were paying in-state rates in fall 2015, which until recently was the most recent data available.

The difference between the two populations of students comes to $1.2 million for the TAG program.

The expense is worth it, said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark.

“It will be rewarded throughout our Garden State in the years to come, as the seeds of their education pay dividends forward,” Cantor said.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said she’s sorry that the law allowing financial-aid eligibility took 10 years to get in place but that the job is not done.

“There are so many more things that we have to get accomplished here – ensuring that our families feel safe, making sure that they have access to driver’s licenses so they can get to and back and from work,” Ruiz said.

Murphy said he doesn’t have a handle on when driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants would be approved, but lawmakers said it’s being discussed now.

“We don’t talk about specific bills until they get here, but conceptually this is something you should assume that we’re all-in on,” Murphy 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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