Gov. Chris Christie and New Jersey Democrats have struck a deal to pass a modified DREAM Act, allowing undocumented immigrants who attended high school in the state for three years to pay the lower in-state tuition rates for college.
It's the first significant stand Christie has taken on immigration reform, though he's already popular with Hispanic voters in New Jersey. In his November re-election—for which he campaigned prominently with Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, a Hispanic Republican—Christie captured 51% of Hispanic votes, up from the 32% in 2009.
That record could add to his appeal as a presidential nominee for a party that has struggled with Hispanic voters.
The DREAM Act has been divisive in the last two elections. Sen. John McCain's support for it was a liability in the 2008 GOP primary, while President Obama hit Mitt Romney hard for his promise to veto it. With immigration reform still struggling in Congress, it promises to be a big issue in the 2016 election too.
For his part, Obama's only DREAM-like progress was acheived by an executive order that circumvented Congress, staying deportations against illegal immigrants under 30 who were brought to the country before age 16.
The deal wasn't simple to strike. For weeks, Christie publicly feuded with the Democratic-controlled legislature over the bill. A deal was struck when Democrats agreed to eliminate provisions that would have allowed DREAM students to receive financial aid as well as the lower tuition rate.
While campaigning for reelection this fall, he announced his support for “tuition equality,” without offering details. When it became clear that he wouldn’t support financial aid for DREAM students, critics slammed the governor for lying to court Hispanic voters.
At a press conference announcing the bill, Christie hit back at those critics.
“For a lot of these folks who put onto me political motives for this, I hope you’re going to write it differently now,” he said. “Because what I was trying to do all along was get to what I promised, which was tuition equality. I didn’t promise tuition assistance grants and financial aid. I promised tuition equality.”
He continued. “This is what compromise looks like. Sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes it’s loud.”
To get the bill through, Christie will conditionally veto the bill Democrats plan to send this afternoon. Lawmakers will then vote on a bill without the financial aid provisions, which the governor hopes to sign into law on Friday.
Striking a deal before January was crucial to the bill’s champions, because it allows students to start paying the lower tuition for the spring semester.
The bill’s champions declared it a win, but promised to keep fighting for financial aid.
“The only piece of this bill that didn’t survive is the TAG Grant,” State Senate president Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said. ”I’m disappointed with that, but I still view this as a victory for young people who are Americans in everything but on paper.”
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, was more ecstatic.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” she said while fighting back tears, according to NJ.com.