In a compromise with Democrats, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) agreed to sign a bill into law that would give certain illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition at public universities in the state.
The governor's announcement came late Thursday, after a series of negotiations with the Democratic-controlled state Assembly, during which Democrats agreed to remove provisions from the bill that would have granted illegal immigrants access to state-funded financial aid.
"The most important thing is for these young men and women of our state, who we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their K-12 education, we're now going to give them an opportunity in an affordable way to be able to continue their education," Governor Christie said in Trenton, N.J., on Thursday evening, according to Reuters.
The bill would apply to illegal immigrants who have attended high school in New Jersey for at least three years and who are enrolled, or who plan to enroll, in public higher educational institutions, including community colleges. Under the compromise, these students will not be eligible for state financial aid, even if they qualify economically.
As a rumored 2016 presidential hopeful, Christie's move on immigration reform places him among the ranks of other likely Republican presidential contenders who have backed bipartisan solutions to the immigration issue, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida, and Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas, Politico reports.
While immigration reform remains a polarizing issue in Republican circles, the GOP became more open to a moderate approach after it lost a significant portion of Hispanic voters in recent elections, Ray Sullivan, who served as Governor Perry's presidential campaign spokesman, told Politico.
In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost the Hispanic vote by about 44 percentage points. Only 26 percent of Hispanic voters are Republicans or lean Republican, versus 58 percent who identify with Democrats, according to a recent Gallup survey.
“Republicans understand we got our tail kicked in part because we haven’t done a good job reaching out to Hispanics and other groups,” Republican strategist Tim Albrecht told Politico. “The 2012 election has changed attitudes and tone, and I think the candidates are going to do a better job of reaching out to those constituencies. I don’t think we’re going to see harsh rhetoric from candidates or caucus-goers.”
During Christie's gubernatorial reelection campaign this year, he supported tuition equality for illegal immigrants, though he did not elaborate then as to what that would entail.
In November, Christie won reelection by 22 points, garnering 50 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Lawmakers were eager to get the bill passed before January so that students could pay lower in-state tuition rates starting next semester, the Newark-based Star-Ledger newspaper reported.
When Christie signs this bill into law, New Jersey will become the 16th state to allow students without legal immigration status to pay in-state rates at public universities, if the students have attended and graduated from primary or secondary schools there, Reuters said.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, the other 15 states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.
The Office of Legislative Services in New Jersey said it is "unable to project the potential reduction in tuition revenue if students were paying in-State tuition rather than out-of-State tuition," because there are no reliable data for the number of unauthorized immigrant students in New Jersey schools, the Star-Ledger reported.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.