Financial aid for NJ undocumented immigrants to start this fall
TRENTON — Legislation that would let Gov. Phil Murphy fulfill a campaign promise of extending financial aid to undocumented immigrants is now on Murphy’s desk after being approved Thursday by the Assembly.
The bill (S699) passed 49-24. The vote was mostly along party lines, except that Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-Somerset, voted against it. The Senate approved it in late March.
New Jersey began allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state resident tuition rates in 2014, but they remain ineligible for state Tuition Aid Grants. Individual colleges can offer them scholarships.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said the bill makes sense from philosophical and economic perspectives.
He said TAG averages $7,500 for students at four-year colleges – half the cost of what taxpayers already spend per pupil a year to educate undocumented immigrants in the K-12 school system.
There are perhaps 600 students who would benefit from the change at a total cost of $4.5 million. Schaer said that’s 1 percent of the TAG budget, one-tenth of a percent of the state budget and equal to 17 cents from the average resident’s $1,479 state tax bill.
“These children had to school themselves against unbelievable odds, and yet they were successful,” Schaer said. “They were hardened by the experience. And one would assume that the success they have had to date would grant them that same success in the future as well. So that after a few years, they would be paying more in taxes than they ever received from tuition assistance grants.
“Seventeen cents,” Schaer said.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said he doesn’t support deporting young people raised in the United States after being brought here illegally as children but that there should be a financial test applied before giving them college financial aid.
“When we’re dealing with a limited pool of money, that one additional request would be that that family that now is seeking money from this pool of money demonstrate that there’s been taxes paid for a period of time, which I think is having some skin in the game,” Bramnick said. “Does not necessarily discriminate against people. What it does it encourages people to pay their taxes.”
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said the cost could be $13 million, not $4.5 million, and that the change is both unaffordable to the state and unfair to citizens.
“The bill doesn’t make sense from a fiscal perspective, and it doesn’t make sense from a fairness perspective,” Webber said.
“This bill obviously takes away financial aid that would be available to citizens of the United States and gives it to people who are not citizens of the United States. Whether they’re not citizens through their own fault or somebody else’s fault, they’re not citizens,” Webber said.
“Most people in New Jersey, most people in this country, think that and expect that citizenship means something,” he said. “And unfortunately increasingly it seems that’s not the case.”
A group of undocumented immigrants watched the vote from the Assembly balcony – excited that the bill passed, though stung a bit by Webber’s remarks.
“It was really emotional hearing one of the legislators just talk about how we are so un-American,” said Sara Mora, of Hillside, who was born in Costa Rica but brought here 18 years ago at age 3. “That was really hard to hear, just sitting there and knowing that there is a full-blown group of people that just don’t want us here.”
Mora said she got an associate’s degree in international relations from Union County College, then had to put off college because the scholarship wasn’t enough to help pay the tuition at the private school to which she was accepted. She said her long-term goal is law school – and now, maybe run for Legislature.
Schaer said the average high school graduate pays $552 a year in taxes on an income of $35,284, amounting to around $22,000 over a 40-year career. He said the state gets more than three times more in tax collections from the average college graduate — $1,792 a year on an income of $59,450, equal to almost $71,700 over a career.
Among those potentially getting a big boost in earnings is Piash Ahamed, of Woodbridge.
Ahamad was brought to the United States from Bangladesh at age 10. He found out he was undocumented when he tried to register for a driver’s education class in 10th grade, only to learn he didn’t have a Social Security number.
He got into Rutgers School of Engineering in 2007 but didn’t get scholarships and couldn’t afford what was then out-of-state tuition rates, so he instead worked under the table jobs at Woodbridge Center mall for five years. He went to Middlesex County College after the in-state tuition change became law.
“So the fact that I’ll be able to go back to Rutgers to finish my degree that I originally started a long, long time ago is amazing,” Ahamed said. “That feeling that I’m appreciated in the state and that people want me to succeed and they believe in my American dream, I’m so grateful.”