Gov. Christie drew accusations Tuesday of backpedaling in the interests of a possible presidential bid after announcing he would not support a bill helping undocumented immigrants pay for college in New Jersey.
Christie, who has voiced support for tuition equality, said on a radio show Monday night that he would not sign a Senate bill allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at New Jersey colleges and apply for state financial aid.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a statement that Christie supported the bill when he was running for governor, but "now that he is running for president, he does not."
Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that they had no plans to change the bill despite the governor's remarks. A spokesman for Christie did not comment Tuesday or elaborate on the governor's remarks.
Taking questions from listeners on NJ101.5 FM's hour-long Ask the Governor program Monday, Christie said he supported tuition equality, but there were "a number of problems" with the Senate bill.
"I don't want a program that's richer than the federal program and richer than other states, which could make us become a magnet state for people," Christie said. "That's not what is intended."
Christie -- who said he had made the bill's problems "very clear" to Sweeney and would sign an amended version -- did not say what made the bill "richer" than the federal Dream Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. The New Jersey bill does not address citizenship.
The governor expressed specific opposition to wording he said would allow out-of-state students who attend New Jersey boarding schools to qualify for in-state tuition.
"Let's say you live in Pennsylvania and you go to boarding school at Lawrenceville, you can get in-state tuition," Christie said. "But if you were here with all your documentation, you could not. I mean, I think most people in New Jersey would just go, 'Well, that's stupid. Let's fix that.' "
To qualify for in-state tuition, undocumented immigrants would have to attend high school in New Jersey for at least three years and graduate in New Jersey or earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Legislative staff said the bill was tied to high school attendance rather than state residency because of a federal law requiring that any benefit provided to undocumented immigrants also be provided to citizens. If the New Jersey bill were based on a residency requirement, then students who are citizens from any state would be entitled to in-state tuition at New Jersey colleges and universities.
"Changing the bill to address the issues presented . . . could essentially gut the bill," Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), the bill's sponsor, said in a statement. She said she was "hugely disappointed by the turn this debate has taken."
Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D., Bergen), the sponsor of tuition equality legislation in the Assembly, said Christie's concern was "not really relevant."
The number of students from out of state attending New Jersey high schools is "very small," he said. And a student who could afford boarding school would not qualify for state financial aid, he said.
As for the governor's statement that the bill offers "richer" benefits than the Dream Act, "I don't know what he means by that," Johnson said. The Dream Act "is a pathway to citizenship, or getting a green card. It has nothing to do with applying for or getting any kind of funding from the government."
Supporters of the bill said Christie's opposition to a loophole for boarding school students was an excuse to veto the bill.
Karol Ruiz, a legal intern at Wind of the Spirit Immigration Resource Center in Morristown, said Christie had twice expressed support for the bill in her presence: at the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey's annual gala in October, and again before the gubernatorial election at a campaign event in her Morris County hometown.
"I asked him directly. . . . He said yes, it would get passed in the lame-duck session," Ruiz said in a conference call with other bill supporters Tuesday.
"For him to say the bill is unsignable is completely backpedaling on the promise" he made to voters, Ruiz said. "That promise is the reason he got 51 percent" of the Hispanic vote in the election.
Lizette Delgado-Polanco, executive director of the Service Employees International Union New Jersey State Council, also accused Christie of backtracking. "You go out and promise one thing to get the Latino vote," she said.
Fifteen states have passed tuition equality legislation, and three states have university systems that have adopted similar policies, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
Three states also allow undocumented immigrants to receive state aid for college: Texas, California, and New Mexico.
Johnson -- whose bill in the Assembly does not include financial aid for undocumented students -- said the Senate version, which includes financial aid, "will be the bill that goes forward." He may introduce an amendment or new bill to increase funding for the state's Tuition Aid Grant program, since "we're now going to have more people competing for this money," he said.
Christie previously expressed concern about the costs of tuition equality legislation. The Office of Legislative Services said that the Senate bill would result in "an indeterminate increase in state expenditures," but that it could not determine the fiscal impact to the state because it was unknown how many students would meet the requirements of the bill.
Lawmakers have until the end of the session in January to send a bill to the governor's desk.
(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
Original headlie: Christie won't support tuition bill for undocumented students
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