States taking the lead in immigration reform

Gov. Christie addresses students in Union City after his ceremonial signing of the bill that lets undocumented students pay in-state rates at public colleges. New Jersey is among 15 states with such a law.
Gov. Christie addresses students in Union City after his ceremonial signing of the bill that lets undocumented students pay in-state rates at public colleges. New Jersey is among 15 states with such a law. (AP)
Posted: January 14, 2014

In what became the second-most interesting day Chris Christie had last week, the New Jersey governor on Tuesday held a ceremonial bill signing, flanked by young students, to herald the discount in-state college tuition program recently enacted for eligible undocumented immigrants.

The move put the Garden State among 15 states with similar DREAM Act laws aimed at providing educational assistance to undocumented youth.

Though immigrant rights groups will continue to push for federal immigration reform, "2014 is going to be a year with lots of movement at the state level," said Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, a Washington organization with member groups in 25 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

And in much the same way proponents of strict controls on immigration "copycatted" harsh state laws in recent years, she said, "The trend you are seeing here is to advance undocumented immigrants' rights by building momentum at the state level."

Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice, a Washington group that advocates for undocumented immigrants, is a 20-year veteran of immigration policy debates.

"There has been a dramatic turnaround in the past two years," he said.

"Two years ago [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry was cratering [as a Republican presidential nominee] in part because he supported the Texas DREAM Act. Mitt Romney was advocating self-deportation. States were copying Arizona and Alabama with harsh laws.

"Fast-forward to today," said Sharry, "and Chris Christie is leaning into his state's DREAM Act as a way to improve his appeal as a GOP candidate."

Introduced on Capitol Hill in 2001, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has been refiled in various forms over the years. It last foundered in Congress amid a Senate filibuster in 2010.

Its objective is a path to legal status for the nation's estimated 2.1 million undocumented college-age youth, called "dreamers" by their supporters.

Dreamers with clean criminal records who entered the United States as minors, completed high school or GEDs, completed at least two years of college, or served two years in the military, could obtain legal residency.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in June incorporated the federal DREAM Act; President Obama's June 2012 order deferring deportations for "childhood arrivals" accomplished the legal residency component temporarily.

Involves every state

Supporters say DREAM Act-eligible immigrants live in every state, with the largest number in California (26 percent of the national total). New Jersey has 7 percent of the total; Pennsylvania has far less.

Nonetheless, calling it "the right thing to do" as an "investment" in the commonwealth, Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster) sponsored Pennsylvania DREAM Act legislation that would offer in-state tuition and low-interest student loans to the state's estimated 30,000 eligible young immigrants.

The Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition estimates 850 undocumented students graduate from Pennsylvania schools each year, "only to realize that their diplomas do not ensure access to higher education."

Under Smucker's bill, Pennsylvania high school graduates and students with GEDs who are undocumented would be eligible to attend any of the 14 state universities or four state-related universities at the lower in-state rate.

Undocumented students at Pennsylvania's state-supported colleges currently pay the out-of-state rate - nearly double the in-state tuition for a year of school.

The legislation "recognizes the reality that these students are Pennsylvania residents who deserve the same access to higher education [as] fellow graduates," Andrew Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, testified in May at the legislature's Education Committee. "At its core, this legislation is about fairness." The bill awaits further action.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), the state's most vocal critic of illegal immigration, has called the legislation "unpatriotic" and vowed to oppose it.

While stopping short of predicting an outcome, Sharry, the immigrant advocate, was sanguine. He cited the large number of public demonstrations last year at which "dreamers" declared themselves undocumented and unafraid and presented "a human story that resonates with Americans."

"They are not some menacing group of immigrants," he said. "They are the kids who go to school with your kids."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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