In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students?

September 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Correspondent Rick Karr explores proposed legislation to allow undocumented students to benefit from in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities in New Jersey. Cynthia Cruz, an undocumented immigrant, tells her story.

UPDATE ON BILLS: On June 18, 2013, tuition-equity-only bill — i.e. NOT with financial aid eligibility — was approved by the Assembly Budget Committee and Senate Committee of Higher Ed. The next step is that the bill will be up for a full vote on both the Assembly and Senate floor in the fall when they return from summer recess.  Pro-tuition equity activists have been campaigning and focused on asking Gov. Christie to issue a public statement in support of tuition equity, especially as he possibly takes the national stage if he decides to run for the Republican nomination for President.

RICK KARR: According to the law, Cynthia Cruz is an undocumented immigrant, a Mexican citizen living in the United States. According to Cynthia Cruz, New Jersey is home … because it’s where her parents brought her when she wasn’t even two years old … and Mexico is very far away.

CYNTHIA CRUZ: I don’t remember anything about it. I don’t remember how it looks.  I don’t remember, like, where I lived, where I was born.  I don’t remember anything.  All I know is the American culture.

RICK KARR:  Cruz says American culture taught her that the key to success is education. So after high school, she went to a local community college, and then last fall to Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship public university. Her goal was a degree in public policy, but after only one semester on campus, she had to drop out because she ran out of money. As an undocumented immigrant, she couldn’t get financial aid from the state, and she had to pay higher tuition than other New Jersey residents. If you’re a resident of the state of New Jersey, the tuition and fees for one year as a full-time undergraduate at Rutgers is just over thirteen thousand dollars. If you’re not a resident, it’s going to cost you twice as much — nearly twenty eight thousand dollars.

And that’s the amount that students who are undocumented immigrants have to pay, even if they’ve lived the vast majority of their lives as residents of the state of the New Jersey. They support a bill in the state legislature that would allow them to pay the in-state rate. The idea is called tuition equity.

Fourteen states have passed similar laws, from Connecticut and New York in the east … to California, Washington, Oregon, and most recently Colorado in the West. But there’s also been a backlash — Indiana banned tuition equity, Wisconsin repealed it. And the Texas law that first provided tuition equity to undocumented students turned into a political liability for Governor Rick Perry …

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MITT ROMNEY:  I’ve got be honest with you, I don’t see how it is that a state like Texas — to go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year.

RICK SANTORUM: And why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country? That’s what we’re saying.

RICK KARR:  Cynthia Cruz says she isn’t asking for preferential treatment. For a while after she dropped out of school, she held down two jobs, including one at a catering hall near the home she shares with her parents. Now, it’s only one job, but she’s still saving money and hoping that she can return to Rutgers.

What would tuition equity mean to you and people like you?

CYNTHIA CRUZ: Oh, it would mean so much.  Just it fills it me up with so much emotions, tuition equity.  It means a whole lot.  It would mean a whole generation will be able to attend higher education.  They’ll be making the step that their parents  weren’t able to do,  to afford school, to be able to have equal opportunities as everyone else.   And it goes back to the history of– MLK, Rosa Parks, what they were fighting for, equal opportunity for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion and culture.

RICK KARR: But they were fighting, Rosa Parks, MLK, they were fighting for people who were American citizens?


RICK KARR: People for whom there was no question that their parents had been citizens, their grandparents had been citizens.  You’re not.  So why should you get those equal rights?

CYNTHIA CRUZ: It’s, like, when you’re 22 months and your parents make a decision do we have the– do we have the capacity, the ability to be able to tell our parents what’s right from wrong.  We’re paying the consequences of– consequences of actions our parents took. We had no say nor choice.

ROBERT SINGER: Do I feel bad for that young person who’s here since 22 months that is struggling? I feel very bad for that person.

RICK KARR:  Robert Singer is a Republican member of the New Jersey senate who sits on the chamber’s higher education committee.

ROBERT SINGER:  But I also have to as a state legislator step back a little and say, “Wait a second.  I represent 240,000 people in my district.  I’ve got people struggling that can’t make tuition also that are hard-working American citizens, New Jersey citizens.  Where do I– where do they fit into this?” Every one of our public institutions have no openings.  They’re jam-packed. So what am I doing for the New Jersey resident who is a citizen of the United States?  Am I knocking them out? So some of my concerns are we’re really taking that slot away from a New Jersey student.

RICK KARR:  Singer and his colleagues in the state legislature are debating two bills: one would let undocumented graduates of New Jersey high schools like Cynthia Cruz pay in-state tuition if they’ve lived in the state for at least three years. The other would do that … and make them eligible for state financial aid. But Singer says those grants are barely able to keep up with the needs of students who’re already eligible.

ROBERT SINGER:  And now you say, “Wait a second, oh, by the way, there’s an influx of undocumented that are now going to apply for those same grants and money you’re getting.  So now we’re going to spreading thinner where you may not get it.”  I can’t deal with that.  I have to be able to say, “No, no.”

RICK KARR:  Singer and some other opponents of tuition equity say they’d support it if there were a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. If they could work legally, college degrees would help them earn more. So they’d pay more in taxes, and that would help offset the cost of tuition equity. For the first time in her life, Cynthia Cruz is paying taxes in her own name — early this year she got a work permit through an Obama administration program for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. She wants to take the next step on the path to citizenship as soon as she can. But until that happens, she wants tuition equity, too.

CYNTHIA CRUZ: Comprehensive immigration reform does not include in-state tuition.  It does not.  So while my application is processing what am I supposed to do?  Not go to school.  I’m still going to have to pay out o’ state– I’m still going to have to pay out-of-state tuition.