Lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that would help New Jersey residents who are in the U.S. illegally pay for college, setting up a potential showdown with the governor, who has said he would not sign the current proposal.
The bill would extend the cheaper in-state tuition rate to students brought to the U.S. illegally as children who graduated from a New Jersey high school and are accepted to a state college or university. Currently, this group of New Jersey residents pays the more expensive out-of-state tuition rate.
An Assembly committee sent the bill advanced to the full chamber for a floor vote. It already has passed the Senate and could reach Gov. Chris Christie's desk before the end of the year.
At least a dozen other states have similar laws, including Texas and California, two states with the largest foreign-born population. New Jersey ranks third in the percentage of foreign-born residents.
Christie has expressed support for the concept of extending in-state tuition to qualifying students who are in the country illegally. But after winning 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election, he balked at some provisions in the bill and last month said he would not sign it unless changes were made.
Christie, considered a strong contender for a presidential run in 2016, objects to a portion of the bill giving this group of students access to financial aid if they qualify. He also opposes what he says is a loophole that would grant in-state tuition to students in the country illegally if they graduate from a private boarding school in New Jersey but live in another state.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Christie would get the bill as is. Sweeney and some Hispanic leaders blamed Christie for flip-flopping on the bill. They said he raised no objections while courting the Hispanic vote during his re-election campaign.
Hispanic voters support the bill by a wide margin. Conservative voters, like the ones Christie would need to appeal to if he seeks the Republican nomination for president, strongly oppose it.
Advocates for the bill said it is long overdue and would extend the same educational opportunities to students in this country as those who have legal standing.
Opponents said it is too costly a benefit to extend to those who are in the U.S. without legal permission.
Children brought to the U.S. illegally are required by federal law to receive the same K-12 education as citizens. This bill extends education benefits to college.
The original Assembly bill didn't have the financial aid component. Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, a Republican of Monmouth County, tried unsuccessfully to get Democrats to move that bill, saying it was a reasonable compromise.
The Democrats who lead the panel noted that Republicans didn't support that bill either.
The measure advanced on a party-line 8-4 vote.