A two-bill legislative package to allow New Jersey students planning to attend a state college or university to pay in-state tuition costs despite their immigration status or that of their parents as long as they meet certain requirements has been approved by an Assembly committee.

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Yesterday's hearing was long and often contentious.

"These young people are already here," says Assemblyman Gordon Johnson who co-sponsors both measures. "Many of them know no other home or country but the United States. Many have gone through our public education system and now want to further their education. The state of New Jersey should not be in the business of throwing up obstacles for young people who are ambitious and aspire to do and become better."

The first bill is called the "Tuition Equality Act." It would allow a student, including a student without lawful immigration status, to pay in-state tuition at the state's public institutions of higher education if the student meets the following criteria:

  • Attended a high school in this state for three years or more;
  • Graduated from a high school in this state or attained the equivalent of a high school diploma in the state;
  • Registers as an entering student or is currently enrolled in a public institution of higher education not earlier than the fall semester of the 2013-2014 academic year;
  • Files an affidavit with the institution of higher education stating that the student has filed an application to legalize immigration status or will file an application as soon as he or she is eligible to do so.

"Regardless of where you stand on immigration, the reality is these students are here. They have been here, attended school here and now want to attend college here and earn a degree," says Assemblywoman Annette Quijano.

"We should be making higher education more accessible to all young people, not less. Let's not deny these students the opportunity to achieve their version of the American dream."

Several New Jersey residents testified in opposition to the bill.

"Please kill this bill which raises taxes to subsidize the tuition of illegal alien lawbreakers," urged Jeffrey Hastings.

The bill comes with no cost to the state, claims Johnson.

"American-born children would have to compete for places in these schools," says Barbara Suehar. "That would place them at a disadvantage."

The second bill would allow students who are U.S. citizens and New Jersey residents and want to attend a public college or university in New Jersey, but don't qualify for the in-state tuition rate because their parents do not have legal immigration status, to pay the in-state tuition rate if the student:

  • Is a United States citizen;
  • Has resided in New Jersey for a period of not less than 12 consecutive months immediately prior to the academic period for which state student assistance is being requested or, in the case of the undergraduate tuition rate, 12 consecutive months before first enrolling in a public institution;
  • In the case of a county college student, resides in the county sponsoring the college before first enrolling at the college.

"These students, who are U.S. citizens, have the same constitutional rights as all U.S. citizens. They have no less a right to in-state tuition, as well as tuition assistance than any other New Jersey resident or American citizen," says Assemblywoman Marlene Caride.

"In the case of young people who were brought here as children by parents looking for a better life; they should not be punished and should be given the opportunity to pay in-state tuition, if they want to attend college here. They will contribute to our economy and society by obtaining better jobs which would provide more taxable income."

Both bills were released by the Assembly Budget Committee.