Ruiz & Cunningham ‘Higher Education Citizenship Equality Act’ Advances

Bill Would Ensure Citizens’ Equal Access to College Financial Assistance Regardless of Parents’ Immigration Status

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair M. Teresa Ruiz and Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Sandra Bolden Cunningham to better ensure that New Jersey students who are citizens, and whose parents are undocumented, are provided equal access to college was approved today by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The bill sets criteria to determine residency, which is required to be eligible for state student loans, grants or scholarships.

“The practice of initially denying students state aid and loans based on their parents’ immigration status is discriminatory and unjust. It unfairly prevents citizens from accessing the educational opportunities they are entitled to and that their classmates are being provided. Moreover, it is contrary to our goal of ensuring that all students have the tools they need to attain educational success,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Students seeking financial aid for college should not have to worry about being denied or forced to go through a burdensome process to apply because their parents are undocumented. This is a regulation that we are codifying into law to provide permanent protection for New Jersey students.”

“By limiting the ability of a specific group of students to obtain a higher education, the state is placing these students at a disadvantage amongst their peers and depriving them of the chance for a better life that this country prides itself on providing,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “This bill would fix the unfair and cumbersome process students are being asked to follow to obtain grants and loans as a result of their parents’ legal status.”

The bill, S-700, would clarify that a student’s residency, not his or her parents, be considered for eligibility for state tuition assistance, grants and scholarships if the students can prove that he or she is a U.S. citizen, the student has resided in New Jersey for a period of not less than 12 consecutive months immediately before the start of the academic period for which State student assistance is being requested and the parent or guardian provide to the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority with documentation of withholding of income tax, such as a paystub, instead of providing HESAA with copies of their most recent income tax return.

In June 2011, an appeal was filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, by a student (“A.Z.”) who was denied eligibility for a Tuition Aid Grant award because her mother was unable to prove legal residence in New Jersey.  The student is a United States-born citizen and has lived in New Jersey for more than 13 years. HESAA’s denial was based on its policy that a dependent student relies on his or her parent for financial assistance and so the parent actually receives the benefit of any tuition assistance. In August 2012, the Appellate Division reversed HESAA’s decision that A.Z. was ineligible to receive a TAG award and found that HESAA misapplied the law and their regulation altered the governing statute.  HESAA filed a petition with the Supreme Court of New Jersey for an extension to file a 30-day extension to file a notice of petition for certification.  However, HESAA did not appeal to the Supreme Court.

Yet, HESAA continues to consider these students initially ineligible to participate in State grant and scholarship programs because their parents are not legal residents of New Jersey. They are then required to go through a cumbersome process to prove residency.

At least 5 million children who are U.S. citizens live in ­mixed-status households, according to a Center for Migration Studies analysis of census data from 2013. The same organization found that across the country, the share of children born to families with at least one immigrant parent grew from 13.4 percent in 1990 to 25.5 percent in 2015.

The vote was 13-0.