‘Dream Act’ advocates accuse Christie of reneging on promise

Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Capitol in Washington in this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Gov. Chris Christie did something few Republicans have been able to do in recent years when he sailed to re-election earlier this month: He won a majority of the state’s Latino vote.

Exit polls conducted by the state’s major polling agencies showed that Christie won 51 percent of the Latino vote, up from 32 percent in 2009. That is contrast with the 27 percent of the Latino vote won by Mitt Romney during his presidential run in 2012.

That’s why some in the immigrant community were shocked when Christie announced during a call-in radio show on Monday that he planned to veto legislation allowing immigrant students to qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status.

The legislation has been one of the top priorities over the last decade for Latino groups in the state and advocates say the governor’s announced support for tuition equality was one of the primary reasons he did so well among Latino voters.

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But political observers point out that the governor is playing to two audiences – residents of liberal-leaning New Jersey and conservative national Republican voters. He is considered one of the front-runners for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, due in part to his success with Latino voters, but for him to be successful he must continue to underscore his conservative bona fides.

“I think this kind of comment is kind of common from the governor,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He often tries to thread the needle between two sides of an issue by using the power of the conditional veto, or in this case the threat of a conditional veto. As Christie moves closer and closer to declaring his candidacy for president, we shouldn’t be surprised as he continues to find a way to play to both his more moderate statewide constituents and the more hardcore conservative base of the national Republican primary electorate.”

But that has not stopped advocates for the tuition bill from being critical of the governor.

Christie’s strength with Latino voters stems in part, immigration reform advocates say, from his support for what advocates call tuition equality – legislation that would allow students who are undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges if they live in the state and graduated from New Jersey high schools.

Christie’s comments on Monday on his monthly radio call-in show on NJ 101.5 – in response to a question from host Eric Scott, Christie called the state Senate’s tuition bill, which passed earlier this month, “unsignable” – have some advocates saying he reneged on a promise.

“This is very disheartening to hear, after he promised Latinos that he would sign a bill, after we helped get him elected, that he is planning to veto the bill,” said Giancarlo Tello, a board member with the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition.

Milly Silva, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor as a Democrat this year and serves as executive director of 1199SEIU, said the governor “made a promise to Latino voters” and that “now, only weeks after the election, he is reneging on that commitment.”

“It is outrageous to use young students as political footballs to further one’s personal presidential ambitions,” she said in a written statement.

The Senate approved S-2479 by a 25-12 vote on Nov. 18. The bill would allow undocumented students to pay the lower in-state tuition rate at the state’s colleges, universities and other institutions of higher education and allow them to apply for state-administered aid programs. Students would need to have attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, graduated or attained an equivalency diploma from a New Jersey high school, and be enrolled at a state institution of higher education during the current school year. Students who are undocumented immigrants would be required to file an affidavit saying they have applied to legalize their status or will do so when eligible.

The Assembly’s tuition-equality bill does not include the state-aid provision, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), one of its sponsors, said in a press release Tuesday that he expects the Assembly to amend the bill to include the aid provision. Advocates say they have been told that a hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12 and that the bill is likely to be voted on by the full Assembly on Dec. 19, but Assembly officials say nothing had been scheduled as of Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

“Gov. Christie promised to sign a bill, and he’s going to get a bill with in-state tuition rates and state aid eligibility,” Johnson said. “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.”

During his appearance on NJ 101.5, Christie reiterated that he “want(s) tuition equality for folks.”

“Remember the example that people use, which is a compelling one, which is that we have been educating children for eight, 10, 12 years at $17,000 a year or more and then when that child wants to go for higher education we make them pay as if they haven’t been in New Jersey,” he said. “I understand that and I think it is a compelling argument. But the bill as drafted right now does not do that. It expands it significantly beyond that, so I am very hopeful that we will be able to work this out with the Assembly that they will be able to change the bill to put it in a form where it’s not more generous than the federal programs, where they can fix the technical problems.”

He did not elaborate on what those benefits were and his press office did not respond to requests to clarify his comments. However, he did say the bill, as currently written, would allow out-of-state students to attend New Jersey boarding schools, qualify as New Jersey residents and then attend state schools at the lower tuition rate.

“Let’s say you live in Pennsylvania and you go to boarding school at Lawrenceville,” he said. “You could get in-state tuition.”

Advocates for immigrant students disagreed. Hetty Rosenstein, state director of CWA NJ, which represents public employees, called the governor’s objections “nonsensical.”

“His argument is that people are going to send their children to expensive private schools across state lines and, because they graduate from this expensive private school, they are going to get in-state tuition at Ramapo,” she said during a conference call with pro-immigrant advocates. “They have to apply after having gone to expensive private school. How many people are we talking about?”

Karol Ruiz, of the Morristown-based Wind of the Spirits Immigration Resource Center, said she was disappointed by the governor’s comments. The bill’s contents were known to the governor when he told the Latino Leadership Alliance that he supported it, she said during the conference call.

“Since that time, the bill has not changed, always included state aid,” she said, later adding that “for him to now say bill is unsignable is backpedalling on a promise to voters, and that promise is the reason he got 51 percent of the Latino vote. “

Advocates said they believed the governor’s allusion to expanded benefits was meant to signal his opposition to a provision providing access to state aid to immigrant students.

Marisol Conde-Hernandez, a board member with the NJ Dream Act Coalition, called the aid provision “very necessary.”

“The demographic we are talking about is the lowest socio-economic group and needs the assistance,” she said. “Many of these students will have to work. They will not be dorming, not be able to take out loans and, even if they are being charged in-state, they cannot afford a full-time load.”

Most of the students, she said, will be attending class at community colleges and only a fraction, for financial reasons, will move on to four-year schools.

More importantly, she said, the people who will be benefitting from in-state tuition and access to aid will pay taxes to state and local governments, so the state “will not be losing.”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, one of the Senate sponsors, said in a press release Tuesday that the students who would be helped by the legislation – the so-called “Dreamers” – “are New Jerseyans whose families contribute to the growth of the economy and the strength of our state, so when we talk about moving our state forward we need to include everyone who lives here.”

“This is about fairness and equity,” she said. “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.”

Gayle Kesselman, president of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, was critical of the governor – but not because of the threatened veto. She said the governor was wrong to support any form of tuition equality, which she described as a form of state aid.

“He opposes the Senate bill because it includes financial aid,” she said. “But in-state tuition also includes financial aid. In-state tuition allows citizens of New Jersey who have been paying taxes into the system, for their students to go to state schools at a discounted rate.”

The tuition equality bill “would allow children of illegal immigrants to go to college at a reduced rate, and there is financial aid built in to that as much as in the Senate’s bill.”

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