The American Way: Immigration in NJ

The Dream Act raises hope for New Jersey's undocumented youths.

Dream Weaver: Governor Chris Christie greets Union City High Students as he arrives January 7 for the ceremonial signing of the Dream Act at the city’s Colin Powell Elementary School. The governor told the students: “In you we see all that our country can be.”
Photo by Frances Micklow/The Star-Ledger

We all have dreams for our children. Many of us can reasonably expect our kids to enjoy opportunities as good or better than those we took advantage of as we made our way into society. But for undocumented immigrants, that dream seems largely unattainable, especially given the staggering cost of college.

Recently, New Jersey became the 17th state to allow undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition rates at its public colleges and universities. New Jersey’s version of the Dream Act gives the children of undocumented immigrants a shot at achieving the real American Dream, a better life through higher education. In exchange, it requires only that they attend a New Jersey high school for at least three years and graduate in good standing, or earn a high school equivalency degree.

The savings are dramatic. At Rutgers, in-state students pay $13,499 a year in tuition and fees; out-of-staters pay $27,523, more than twice as much.

“This law marks a new era of equality in New Jersey for students who have long called this great state home,” says Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), the Dream Act’s main sponsor in the state Senate. “With this policy, we are changing the way our state treats young people who attend our schools and want nothing more than to receive the same opportunity to obtain a higher education as their peers.” Ruiz previously worked as a pre-K teacher in Newark’s largely Hispanic North Ward.

“These students are part of the fabric of New Jersey, and they are the future of our state,” adds state Senator Nellie Pou (D-North Haledon). Her district includes Passaic County, which has a significant population of undocumented students. “This law will allow [these children] to live out their dreams of going to college, getting a good-paying job and contributing to the goal of creating a better New Jersey for their generation and for those to come.”

With all the confusion and conflict swirling around the Statehouse in Trenton these days, the signing of the Dream Act is a concrete example of what the state needs more of—meaningful compromise and bi-partisan cooperation on substantive issues that impact people’s lives.

The Dream Act exemplifies a better way to resolve political differences. In its initial form, the bill would have made undocumented students eligible to receive state financial aid. The governor, firmly opposing that part of the measure, announced he would not sign any legislation including that provision.

An impasse loomed, but ultimately proponents of the measure agreed to scuttle financial aid for the greater good of offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented youths who finish high school. It was a reasonable and fiscally responsible compromise.

Both sides avoided the error of penalizing the children, who obviously did not choose to pull up roots and start over in a new country whatever the emotional or legal consequences; some were not yet born when their parents did exactly that. With passage of the Dream Act, the children get not just added incentive to better themselves, but more importantly a legitimate way to do it, a truly American Way.

Society is smart to offer young people a route to the rights and privileges of American life. Along the way, it’s a good bet they’ll more readily embrace the responsibilities that come with it. 

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