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A battle in Trenton over a Dream Act for the Garden State

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In the wake of the 2013 state elections, the State Legislature began to assess what might be tackled in the final two months of the current legislative term. That thought process was especially taking place in Democratic war rooms as they looked at issues that maybe were slightly controversial or possibly not ideal with the elections approaching earlier this year. Now with another two years of Democratic control in the State Legislature guaranteed, they could go about pushing for a couple of major issues and legislation.

Chief among them was picking back up the immigration reform debate in the state. Earlier this year, Assembly bill 4225 was advanced by the Assembly Budget Committee to only be pulled by the Democratic leadership since it could potentially cost the party a few seats. The bill has been viewed as New Jersey's version of the Dream Act and a chance for the state to add its name to the dozen or so states with similar legislation that impact undocumented immigrants in their state.

After legislation had gained traction in the Assembly, it looked like Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3) was prepared to make a push in the state Senate for legislation. Equally as adamant has been state Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29). The two were hopeful to lock down a positive result in the state Senate for a bill. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee was poised to vote shortly after the elections were over. The state Senate legislation, S2479, would allow undocumented immigrants attending state colleges to qualify for in state tuition; much like the bill that passed earlier in the Assembly committee vote.

Even with a committee vote in favor of such legislation and a bill forwarded to Governor Chris Christie, a final passage and signature by Christie was far from guaranteed. However, there was some hope for supporters based on comments by Governor Chris Christie during his reelection campaign saying he would consider signing such legislation if put on his desk. At the same time, it would be wise to not put a lot of faith in some comments at that same time as Christie was clearly trying to pick up Hispanic votes and build upon his strong poll numbers overall.

As both chambers of the State Legislature were preparing what might be ultimately presented to Christie, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) kept a close eye on what Sweeney and Ruiz were working on on the state Senate side. Johnson's original legislation he proposed earlier this year was slightly different than what was being proposed in the state Senate and Johnson was very clear about making sure that he tweak the Assembly bill if necessary in order to get something to the governor before the end of the current legislative term.

The main difference with the state Senate bill was the aspect of providing accessibility to financial aid in addition paying in state tuition rates.

The next development would involve the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voting along party lines with one abstention and passing S2479 by a 8 to 3 margin. Clearing that first hurdle in the state Senate was a crucial step forward for supporters. The three who voted "no" pointed to untended consequences and an imperfect bill as their reasons for not supporting the legislation. State Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) was the lone abstention vote.

The full bodies of both the state Senate and Assembly would now need to confirm a bill that had unified language. It looked like there was enough votes in both chambers but the fact that the committee vote on the state Senate side was along party lines could reasonably lead one to question if Christie would still support this legislation.

The state Senate would continue the push towards finalizing passing this bill by taking a full body a few days later. By a 25 to 12 vote, the legislation passed.

As Ruiz would voice,

This to me is about fairness and equity. It’s about accessibility. And most importantly it’s about engaging in a conversation, that when we talk about making the Garden State stronger, this has to be one of those variables in the conversation to ensure that.

As part of the language of giving undocumented immigrants in the state the ability to qualify for financial aid; they would need to have attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, graduated, and filed an affidavit to formalize their intention to legalize their immigration status as soon as legally possible. Currently, those without legal status are forced to pay more expensive out of state rates.

One of the 12 "no" votes was state Senator Robert Singer (R-30).

Singer would express regarding his opposition,

Let me explain one thing to everyone and make perfectly clear: There are not enough slots in public education right now in our four-year institutions for every student who wishes to go, period. For citizens, whose parents pay taxes in this state, who have lived here their whole lives. Understand by doing this, you’re really saying New Jersey students who are qualified, who are citizens of this country in this state.

Sweeney would retort Singer's comments by stating,

These children are here. They live here. They go to school with our children. They play ball with our children... I find it offensive to say that we’re pushing kids out. Remember something: These kids aren’t getting it for free. They’re paying for it. To say we’re playing one against another? I can’t believe we’re talking that way.

The Assembly's full vote was all that awaited before a final stop for a bill on Christie's desk. If a law is passed, New Jersey would join sixteen other states with similar legislation. California, New Mexico, and Texas are the only ones of that group that offer financial aid as part of the legislation in their states.

After some speculation began to grow of Christie potentially vetoing a bill, he would only add to it by explaining;

I want tuition equality for folks, but I don’t want a program that’s richer than the federal program and richer than other states which could make us become a magnet state for people.

Multiple immigration advocates and those who would benefit from this legislation have been bringing their case around the state to legislators and state officials. Many of those marching around the state began to feel that Christie was misleading Hispanic voters in the closing weeks of the electoral campaign to secure more voters from that demographic.

In regard to Christie's comments, the state's bill would be nothing like the proposal being discussed at the national level. This bill would only impact the cost of tuition for undocumented students and their access to financial aid. There is an element of declaring one's intention to obtain legal status but it does not go as far as the path to citizenship discussed as part of the national bill that has been stalled in Congress. Thus, whatever is ultimately finalized out of the state Senate would not be richer or bigger than any federal bill as Christie says he is concerned about.

Another gripe of Christie is the loophole of allowing out of state residents that are attending a private school in the state to pay an in state tuition rate under the bill. That is something that Democrats led by Johnson are open to adjusting if it becomes a barrier in passing the overall bill.

As Johnson prepared to tweak his proposed legislation to reflect what was passed in the state Senate and put it before a final vote in the Assembly, he would take umbrage with Christie's wavering on the issue.

For Johnson,

Governor Christie promised to sign a bill, and he's going to get a bill with in-state tuition rates and state aid eligibility. That's the right bill to move, and if he rejects it, then he's going to have to explain his broken promise to the young New Jerseyans and families who need tuition equality.

Sweeney would add,

When he (Christie) was running for governor he supported it and now that he is running for president, he does not. The governor never misses an opportunity to disappoint. The Dream Act will reach the governor’s desk and after he committed to the families from Vineland to Union City to sign the bill. He once again turns his back those who need us most. I will continue to fight this governor for these New Jersey families and their children.

As changes to legislation in both houses were being discussed in the wake of Christie's comments about only signing an altered version, Ruiz saw that approach as only creating legislation that lacked the whole purpose of a state version of a Dream Act.

For Ruiz,

This is about fairness and equity. It is about eliminating the division that we create when our students graduate high school, and about getting rid of a system that creates a second-class status. The concerns that have been expressed on this bill were discussed at length in the budget committee. Changing the bill to address the issues presented would only carve out another sector of students who would not qualify for in-state tuition. It could essentially gut the bill.

Despite it looking like the governor was going to veto a bill put on his desk in current form, the Assembly Budget Committee by a 8 to 4 vote approved the amended legislative proposal to match the state Senate bill last week. The vote like the one in the state Senate Budget Committee was along party lines.

That all leads the current state of this issue to this week and a likely full Assembly vote and a potential clash between Democrats in Trenton and Christie based on everything said much of the last month related to this bill from both sides. While the aspect of financial aid is an element not discussed as much a few months ago, the bill that Christie largely said he would likely support is about to end up on his desk. A veto by him looks very likely at this moment and a tough path to the January 14th deadline to continue. The 14th of next month is the deadline for passage of a final bill or it will need to be restarted and voted on again as part of the next State Legislature session. It looks like another clash over a bill and a veto related to it are eminent.

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