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Ruiz/Cunningham Bill Granting American-Born NJ Students Equal Access To College, Regardless Of Parents’ Immigration Status Advances

Senator Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex and Union, speaks on a point of personal privilege on the Senate floor.

Bill Would Ensure Equal Access to Financial Assistance, In-State Tuition Rates

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senate Education Chair M. Teresa Ruiz and Senate Higher Education Chair Sandra Bolden Cunningham to ensure that New Jersey students born in the United States are provided equal access to college, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, was approved today by a Senate committee.

The Higher Education Citizenship Equality Act would reverse a discriminatory state policy that prevents New Jersey students – who are born in the country and, therefore, are U.S. citizens – from accessing financial aid offered under state tuition assistance programs if their parents are undocumented immigrants. The measure (S-1760) would also provide that New Jersey students born in the United States are eligible for in-state tuition rates, provided they have resided in the state for at least 12 consecutive months prior to enrollment and that their parents submit certain income tax documentation to the institution.

“The practice of denying students state aid based on their parents’ immigration status is discriminatory and unjust,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “It unfairly prevents U.S. citizens from accessing the educational opportunities they are entitled to and that their classmates are being provided. Moreover, this policy is contrary to our goal of ensuring that all students have the tools they need to attain educational success. It is unacceptable and should be corrected.”

The obstacle to obtaining financial aid for certain United States-born students stems from state-written regulations which determine the residency of dependent students based on where their parents live, or are “domiciled.” To demonstrate residency, the state requires the parent to submit a copy of a New Jersey driver’s license – which an undocumented individual cannot obtain – and a copy of New Jersey State Income Tax Returns. The inability of parents to provide documentation results in students being denied state financial aid.

“Students born in this country are constitutionally entitled to all of the benefits provided to their peers, irrespective of their parents’ immigration status,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “A state policy that deprives a particular population of students of an equal opportunity for state financial aid is fundamentally flawed at best. At worst, it appears to be a violation of the state and federal constitutions that is worthy of scrutiny and in need of a legislative fix.”

A New Jersey student, who was born in New York, was denied financial aid last year by the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) because her mother is an undocumented immigrant. Specifically, HESAA stated the reason for denying the student Tuition Aid Assistance (TAG) eligibility was that her parents were “not legal New Jersey residents.” The ACLU of New Jersey and the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic filed an appeal of HESAA’s decision in June with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, arguing that the state cannot deny a student assistance based on the status of his or her parents. The appeal also contended the state violated the state and federal constitutions’ guarantee of Equal Protection. Oral argument in the case is scheduled for this Wednesday before the Appellate Division.

The senators’ bill (S-1760) would reverse the state’s policy of denying U.S. born New Jersey students tuition assistance based on their parents’ status. The legislation would provide that a dependant student will be “domiciled” in the state for the purposes of determining eligibility for a state student loan, grant or scholarship if: (1) the student is a U.S. citizen; (2) the student has resided in New Jersey for not less than 12 consecutive months immediately prior to the academic period for which state student assistance is being requested; and (3) the student’s parent or guardian provides the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority with documentation of having filed a state and federal income tax return for the most recent tax year, or of evidence of having income tax withheld.

Similar criteria would apply for a dependent student to be “domiciled” in the state for purposes of receiving in-state tuition. However, a student must have lived in state for a period of not less than 12 months prior to enrolling in the institution of higher education and the tax documentation would be submitted to the college or university the student is attending.

“It is appalling that a student who was born in this country and attended New Jersey schools could graduate with honors, but be deprived of the same opportunities that are provided her peers based on the status of her parents,” said Senator Cunningham. “While I believe this practice is unconstitutional, I know it is un-American. It’s time to put an end to this policy so that our students can obtain the education they deserve.”

“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 to all citizens,” said Senator Ruiz.

The Senate Higher Education Committee approved the bill by a vote of 3-0-1. It now goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for a vote.

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