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NJ DREAM Act Signed Into Law After 10 Years Of Organized Action, But More Work Needed

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering at Colin Powell elementary school in heavily Hispanic Union City, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, after he ceremonially signed a bill that lowers tuition costs at public colleges for New Jersey students who lack lawful immigration status. Christie signed the bill privately last month. New Jersey is one of the most recent states to pass the so-called "DREAM Act" legislation, which extends cheaper in-state tuition rates to qualifying students who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

CREDIT: AP/Mel Evans.

DREAMers had reason to celebrate in New Jersey last week during Governor Chris Christie’s (R) ceremonial signing of legislation that grants in-state tuition for undocumented youth who attend high school in the state for three years and then graduate; it was officially signed into law in December 2013, the New Jersey Tuition Equality Act (A4225).

While first introduced in 2003, DREAMers and allies organized in 2012 following the enactment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Bea Sabino, organizer with Anakbayan New Jersey, said, “In October 2012, the New Jersey DREAM Act Coalition along with New Jersey United Students and Anakbayan formed a coalition and expanded throughout the course of the campaign to revive the DREAM Act.”

The campaign launched in January 2013 and originally intended to see the bill passed in June before students enrolled in the Fall term.

While largely youth- and student-led, the eventual success of the campaign “wouldn’t have happened without the support of unions, religions groups, and government at the local and state levels,” Sabino said.

Sabino also cited the support of community leaders at legislative hearings throughout the year. Additionally, the New Jersey Presidents’ Council and New Jersey Council of Community Colleges passed resolutions in favor of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Obstacles throughout the year included pushback from legislators up for re-election in November who wanted to steer away from controversial issues such as tuition equality.

“The biggest challenge was to have the governor say anything about it. He was very silent. Prior to his support in late October, the last statement from him was back in 2009, which was a flat out no,” Sabino said.

The bill signed by Christie only partially grants original demands, and does not include state financial aid.

“We are disappointed it’s not part of the bill. Undocumented youth and families of mixed status are struggling financially to begin with. Granting them in-state tuition is great, it lightens the burden a little bit, but New Jersey still has one of the highest tuition rates in the nation,” Sabino said. “This is an ongoing fight. We’ve been steadily organizing our communities, and we see this victory, however partial, as a testament as to how powerful an organized community can be.”

Jude Paul Dizon is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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