Op-Ed: DREAMers Need Real Tuition Equality

This op-ed appeared in the March 25, 2018 edition of the Star-Ledger.

Our state policymakers can mitigate the federal government’s attacks on immigrants by taking actions that would honor New Jersey’s history as the golden door for immigrants and maintain our state as a welcoming, inclusive place.

One way is to help all New Jersey students attain their educational goals in the state they call home. Our Senate has that opportunity Monday with a floor vote on S-699, a bill that would allow undocumented students to access state financial aid, particularly the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who already qualify for tuition equality.

In 2013, the state boosted educational and economic opportunities for New Jersey’s undocumented students by allowing those who meet certain requirements to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. This has helped more students pursue a higher education, which will put them – and New Jersey – on a path toward greater economic opportunity.

But the absence of financial aid keeps many eligible students from completing a four-year degree. This has direct economic impact on New Jersey, which has third-highest share of jobs in the nation that require a bachelor’s degree, making it increasingly important for working-class families to send their children to college.

Undocumented students are like others from working-class families, except that their legal status disqualifies them from receiving federal financial aid and assistance from poverty relief programs. Most of the beneficiaries of DACA came to New Jersey in their parents’ arms. They graduated from our high schools, worked to help their family make ends meet, became vital members of our communities, and served in our military.

There are about 74,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 18, have lived at least four continuous years in the United States, and graduated from high school or are currently enrolled in a secondary school.

They’ve helped grow our economy and made New Jersey, which has the third-largest share of immigrants in the U.S., a more productive place to live. To deny them access to affordable education is to send our state into the future with one arm tied behind our backs.

Consider a young woman named Adriana, who is a member of Make the Road NJ in Passaic: After three years as a part-time student, she was forced to drop out of Bergen Community College because the ancillary costs of full-time education are unmanageable. These days, she works at the mall. Adriana has the potential to finish school but is shut out of federal and state aid programs, even if her family pays taxes.

These students should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education regardless if the federal government ultimately follows through with its threat to end DACA completely. We all benefit from having a more educated population and we should not be the state that blocks the passion of DREAMers for higher education. Lest anyone forget: We have told them since they were children that there is no better way to succeed in America than to graduate from college.

New Jersey’s undocumented students are part of our community. Parents in undocumented families, like the rest of us, work hard and pay taxes – at a higher effective tax rate than the state’s wealthiest one percent – just to give their kids a better shot at success than they themselves had.

And all New Jersey students who meet the educational requirements and prove their financial need should be able to access the same programs as their classmates regardless of their immigration status.

By seeking access to state financial aid for college, these families are not asking to cut to the front of the line. They are simply asking for a chance to stand in line with the rest of their classmates and make New Jersey better.