Aiding Immigrants at the State Level

A rally at the USCIS headquarters in Newark on March 5. (Photo courtesy of Make the Road NJ)

Maria Del Cielo Mendez came to New Jersey from Mexico when she was 3 years old to reunite with her parents. Her father emigrated in 2003, shortly before Maria was born; her mother followed a short time after.

“He said there was nothing here in Mexico,” and then worked multiple jobs in New Jersey to make ends meet.

“They were getting paid $6 an hour,” she told me recently, “but they still found it better than what they had.”

Maria attended school in Plainfield, taking English as a Second Language class until the first grade, doing well academically, and now with graduation from the Union County Magnet High Schools approaching, she is unsure what the future holds.

She is a DACA student — a childhood arrival protected under a 2012 Obama executive order, but still officially an unauthorized immigrant. DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is two-year renewable program created by President Barack Obama that allowed those who came as children to temporarily normalize their status and qualify for working papers. The Trump administration canceled the program, setting the last day for DACA recipients to file for extensions as March 5. But two federal district courts have issued injunctions against the Trump action, ordering it to continue accepting renewal applications.

The program was never meant to be more than a stop-gap solution to a problem Congress refused to address, but it gave DACA recipients a sense of continuity and stability. Trump, following his ending of the program, said he would support legislation that would bring back DACA — but with a catch. He wants money for his border wall, more money for enforcement and changes in legal immigration, which has made his offer a non-starter and is evidence that he was not negotiating in good faith.

Dreamers — the young immigrants who were the focus of DACA — want a clean bill. They have made it clear they are unwilling to trade their parents’ safety and the fate of their neighbors and friends for their own benefit. So they wait in limbo.

In the meantime, the climate grows harsher, with a growing number of arrests and the targeting of previously off-limits safe havens like churches and courthouses. That’s why immigrants and their advocates have started looking to the states for help — which has come in the form of sanctuary policies at the state and local level and an expansion of services for the undocumented, including the issuance of driver’s licenses and college aid.

California has been leading the way, but New Jersey is not far behind. State lawmakers are pressing ahead with new benefits for New Jersey’s undocumented residents, with the Senate passing a bill Monday on a bill that would grant undocumented students access to state aid to attend New Jersey colleges. In addition, bills extending driving privileges to the undocumented and limiting law enforcement and corrections officers’ interaction with federal immigration authorities have been introduced in the Senate.

Similar bills were introduced in recent years, but failed to advance — either dying in the Senate or Assembly or, in the case of college aid, being vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. A political shift has taken place, however, with Trump replacing Obama in the White House and Phil Murphy replacing Christie in the Statehouse, altering the dynamic at both the federal and state levels.

Democrats in the Legislature, assuming they have cover from the new governor, are moving to protect the state’s undocumented residents from a more aggressive federal immigration enforcement regime. They are framing the debate in terms of both investment — the undocumented students who are covered by the bill attended and graduated from New Jersey schools — and as an effort to make a statement to the Trump administration that the state has the backs of its undocumented residents.

“It is within our responsibilities as state legislators to protect the Dreamers at the state level so that they can continue living in the only place … the only home they know,” Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Essex), a sponsor of the tuition bill, said during the Feb. 8 hearing on the bill.

Erika Martinez, an 18-year-old Elizabeth resident who is a senior at the Union County Academy for Allied Health Sciences in Scotch Plains, sees the tuition bill and other efforts as a way to protect immigrants and possibly prod other states to act.

“With The current political climate and everything that is happening at the national level, this is affirmation that New Jersey will stand up for its Dreamers and possibly will motivate other states to do something similar,” she said. “If the national legislators aren’t willing to advocate for Dreamers, then at least my home state will support me.”

Bill S699, which is sponsored by Pou and Sens. Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), was approved by the Senate 26–10, with four Republicans joining Democrats in support. The Assembly version, A3467, was approved by the Assembly Higher Education Committee and awaits further action.

The bill would allow any student who: attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years, graduated or received an equivalency diploma from a New Jersey high school to apply for and receive aid through the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority through the Tuition Aid Grant and other programs. The bill also would require undocumented students to file affidavits saying they will seek legal status as soon as it is possible to do so.

Activists have made several pilgrimages to Trenton to underscore the issue’s importance, both to college students but to the larger immigrant community. Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said in an email that “providing access to financial aid is a great step first step in fighting attacks on our immigrant communities” and that it should have been enacted in 2014 as part of the tuition equity bill. That bill allowed any student who attended and graduated from high school in New Jersey to qualify as an in-state or in-county student at state and county colleges and universities. It included the state aid provision when it was approved by the state Legislature, but was removed by line-item veto by then-Gov. Chris Christie.

“Going to school, even with in-state tuition rates, can be a financial burden for some families,” Calle said. These burdens are exacerbated by the general fear in the immigrant community, DACA uncertainty, family legal status and the prohibition against most undocumented residents qualifying for driver’s licenses. “We are glad to see NJ considering this and seeing how they could help the dreamers who want to continue their academic careers, but we are also aware of the other challenges that they face,” Calle said. “Many of those who have DACA have to drive their families around because they are the only ones who have driver’s licenses. They are supporting their families financially as they are the only ones who may be able to get higher paying jobs (because they have legal work status).”

Erika Nava, an analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, said about 500 new immigrant students attended school between 2014, when the in-state tuition bill took effect, and 2016. That figure, though, may be an undercount because not all colleges provide data.

Nava said that conservative Texas, which has far more undocumented students than New Jersey, provides state aid and they comprise about 1.5 percent of the total state residents who get aid. New Jersey’s numbers are likely to be similar. It is important to remember, she said, that not all students who wish to attend college will get in and not all will qualify for aid.

“Right now, just because they enroll, doesn’t mean they are going to finish their degree,” Nava said. “Sometimes it is too much for them, to work two jobs and be a full-time student, so they drop out and re-enroll again. (State) aid will help them finish school, finish their degree in time, instead of it taking seven to eight years.”

Daniela Velez, who works with the advocacy group UndocuJersey, has been struggling to stay in college since 2012, when she graduated from high school. She started attending Burlington County Community College and paid out of state tuition for the first year, until the tuition equity bill allowed her to qualify for in-state and in-county rates. She received her associate’s degree in 2016 and enrolled at Rutgers as a junior in the fall of 2017. She qualifies for in-state tuition, but receives no state aid and has to commute an hour to school. And, remember, the only difference between Velez and her high school classmates was her immigration status.

She initially paid for college by opening credit cards to pay to tuition and then paying them off before the interest rate kicked in. But she was only able to take one or two classes per semester and no more than about 15 credits in a year. She paid about $3,000 for 12 credits at the community college. She now pays the same for just two classes at Rutgers.

While Velez stayed in state, other students are leaving New Jersey. Martinez, who emigrated from El Salvador when she was 2, and fellow Elizabeth resident Halexther Rivero, who is also 18, have been forced to apply to what are called “need-blind” schools. Eadvisers, which acts as an online clearing house for financial aid and student loans, defines need-blind schools as those that do not consider financing when reviewing a student’s application. Most schools consider need, reviewing federal and state aid forms, as part of the application process.

These schools are more expensive than those that take financial need into account, partly because most are private schools and most are out of state. Fairleigh Dickinson and Princeton are the only need-blind schools in New Jersey.

Martinez said she chose out-of-state schools that were need-blind and potentially affordable. But that will create additional family hardships.

“I have a smaller brother and would want to be home to be close to him,” she said. “I would have preferred to apply to schools that are more local” but could not.

Rivero, who emigrated from Venezuela when she was 2, said she is focusing on county colleges, which are significantly cheaper. She said her choices were limited because she cannot work — she did not qualify for DACA. Her sister enrolled at Union County College and registered for classes, but could not afford to attend.

“We have gotten in-state tuition, but we are not able work,” said Rivero, who wants to major in biology. “We live with our mother, who would eventually wants to finance both of us. We are close in age, and this puts a huge financial strain on my mother, who is a widow. There is nobody who can help her.”

Qualifying for aid could “change my family’s life and benefit a lot of families,” she said.

“I grew up with this understanding that higher education was something we were going to miss out on,” because of their status, she said. “Teachers always encouraged higher education, and it was embarrassing to think that I would not be a part of it, that I would let my teachers down.”

Martinez said she felt the same way when she learned she was undocumented and that college was suddenly a far more difficult goal to achieve. She learned of her status when she was a high school “freshman or sophomore and my older sister was applying to college.”

“She was applying to just (Union County College) and I asked her why not Rutgers,” Martinez said. “Most of the seniors in my school were applying there, but she told me we could not afford it. She said ‘we are undocumented and we don’t get federal aid or financial aid from the state. That’s when I realized that I was undocumented. It was pretty life changing to know I wouldn’t have same opportunities as my classmates. It was kind of — I questioned it a lot. I was just like my peers. I was doing the same work, the same extracurricular activities. I was in the classroom with the same people. I didn’t understand why, outside of the classroom, I was different. Why I was below them.”

Martinez, who plans to major in public policy, called it a “generational issue.” The state is driving students with potential away, forcing them out of the state because they cannot qualify for state aid.

“My sister was forced to settle for community college,” because of the cost, she said. “I don’t want this to happen to my peers. I want them to have the options of state colleges and universities and have the financial aid they need to help them afford their education.”

Poet, professor & longtime newsman, who covers economic & other issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications. Check out my blog @

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