In five months, barring constructive Congressional action, 690,000 undocumented youth who call the United States home will face a threatening future thanks to the cruel actions of the Trump administration.
While there is little state policymakers can do to prevent this huge step backward at the federal level, there are actions they can take that would honor New Jersey’s history as the golden door for immigrants, and make our state a more welcoming, inclusive place. They should start by allowing undocumented students access to state financial aid.
Most of the beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) came to New Jersey in their parents’ arms. They graduated from our high schools. Many worked to help their undocumented parents make ends meet. Under DACA they were able to get jobs that match their skills and given the opportunity to pursue the American Dream. But unlike just about everyone else who’s lived the American Dream, they are now threatened with revocation of their protections, their opportunities and even their continued residency in the United States.
While DACA was not perfect, it highlighted the concrete benefits of giving undocumented residents a chance to step out of the shadows by allowing them to participate more fully in our community and economy. In New Jersey, it allowed about 22,000 undocumented youth to have access to driver’s licenses and work permits and protection against deportation. Many DACA beneficiaries were able to obtain decent jobs, buy a car, go to college, or even open their own business. Nearly all of these Garden State DREAMers are working – and paying $66 million a year in state and local taxes.
Now the future of these young immigrants’ lives is in limbo and they face diminished opportunities. There is no better time for New Jersey to expand the educational opportunities it offers young undocumented immigrants by allowing those who meet certain requirements to gain access to state financial aid so they have a realistic shot at affording New Jersey’s public colleges and universities.
Yes, the law granting DREAMERS in-state tuition rates was a welcome but insufficient step forward given the low incomes of almost all undocumented households and their exclusion from any federal grants or loans. Even so, hundreds of striving students have benefitted from the law – but now without DACA many may no longer be able to work in jobs that helped pay for their education and would be forced to subsist on low-wage jobs.
If New Jersey fails to act, the situation would only get worse and many of these young students would be forced to drop out of school as they would no longer be able to keep their work-permitted jobs. But, even without work permits, these students should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education. We all benefit from having a more educated population and we should not be the state that blocks their passion for higher education. After all, we have told them since they were young children that there is no better way to succeed in America than to graduate from college.
All New Jersey students who show promise to succeed and meet the financial requirements should be able to access the same programs as their classmates, regardless of their status. Let’s be clear: the best way to get a return on the investment made educating these young folks from preschool through 12th grade is to create a clear pathway to an attainable college education – and the increased earnings and economic impact it brings.
New Jersey’s undocumented students are part of our community. Their families pay taxes just like yours do – in fact they pay a higher effective tax rate than the state’s wealthiest 1 percent. To continue to deny them access to state student financial aid clearly dilutes the positive impact of DACA and Tuition Equity.