If a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate Budget Committee becomes law, undocumented immigrants would be eligible for state aid and in-state tuition rates at New Jersey's colleges and universities.

Assembly Speaker-Elect Vinnie Prieto (Photo by Kevin McArdle, Townsquare Media)

"These students live here (and) should be able to pay the same as my children that have gone to college here," said Assembly Speaker-elect Vinnie Prieto (D-Secaucus). "Students leave this state, about 30,000 every year, and when they leave they do not come back. These students want to stay here. They want to be educated here."

The bill allows a student, including anyone without lawful immigration status, to pay the resident tuition at the state's public higher education institutions if the student meets the following requirements:

  • attended high school in this state for three or more years;
  • graduated from a high school in this state, or attained the equivalent of a high school diploma in the state;
  • registers as an entering student, or is currently enrolled in a public institution of higher education not earlier than the fall semester of the 2013-2014 academic year; and
  • in the case of a person without lawful immigration status, files an affidavit with the institution of higher education stating intent to legalize his or her immigration status.

"Students have waited far too long for the equality of access that the New Jersey DREAM Act would provide," said Marios Athanasiou, president of New Jersey United Students. "This is not just an issue that affects individuals; it is a matter of concern for the future of our society and generations to come. We have the opportunity to ensure that an affordable, accessible, quality education -- and aid towards that education -- is available to all students throughout New Jersey."

During his re-election campaign, Gov. Chris Christie expressed support for the bill, but supporters are worried that the part allowing undocumented students to participate in state financial aid programs will be stripped out of the legislation to ensure that it will not be vetoed.

Opponents of the measure don't think public dollars should be used to subsidize the education of undocumented immigrants.

"The argument posted by the pundits who say that we should not use public dollars to fund their education is beyond preposterous," said Lizzette Delgado-Polanco, vice chair of the Democratic State Committee. "We funded these same kids from kindergarten through high school, and we have the gall to say that they are somehow different from the other boys and girls who they grew up with."

Currently, 18 other states offer tuition equity of some kind to undocumented students. Fifteen provide it through state legislation, while the others offer more limited equity via educational governing bodies. California, New Mexico and Texas also allow undocumented students to access state financial aid.