With a US Congress seemingly incapable of overhauling the immigration system, states have taken it upon themselves to determine what rights to extend to undocumented immigrants—and different places often come to very different conclusions. Last week, two divergent decisions in Arizona and New Jersey make clear the significance of local politics for Dreamers.
On April 10, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are no longer eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges. DACA offers exceptional young undocumented immigrants two-year work permits and protection from deportation. With this ruling, the court affirmed an appellate-court decision that sided with Arizona in its lawsuit challenging the Maricopa County Community College system. In 2013, shortly after President Obama announced the creation of DACA, the community-college system announced that it would allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition. And Arizona, at the direction of then-Governor Jan Brewer, sued.
Meanwhile, across the country, New Jersey’s State Assembly passed a bill on Thursday granting undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid for college. The bill, which was already approved by the state Senate, is now on Governor Phil Murphy’s desk. The victory is a long time coming—the path here has stretched as long as Arizona’s fight to withhold in-state tuition to its undocumented immigrants. In 2013 the New Jersey legislature sent then-Governor Chris Christie a package that included both in-state tuition and financial-aid benefits for undocumented immigrants; Christie only signed the in-state tuition portion.
“It’s not a maybe, it’s a definite game changer,” said Sara Mora, a 21-year-old DACA recipient and immigrant-rights activist from New Jersey. “Being able to apply for and be considered for financial aid is the option everyone is looking for when you’re applying for school.” Mora graduated last May with an associate’s degree from Union County Community College. She was accepted to a four-year university to begin this fall with a scholarship that required full-time enrollment. “But I couldn’t even afford part-time, so I had to drop that offer,” Mora said.
The 2013 bill came just in time for her. “I never had to pay out of state tuition, but I only made it by a year,” Mora said. Because undocumented immigrants are not recognized as residents of the counties they live, they are charged non-resident tuition, which can be two or three times the tuition that in-state and in-county students are charged. Full-time in-state students at Mora’s alma mater, for example pay $2,404 per semester, while out-of-state students pay $4,804. Because undocumented students, even those with DACA, are ineligible for federal student aid, the costs are often the chief barrier to college for undocumented students.