Updated 06:43 AM EDT, Wed, Jun 23, 2021

Immigration Reform 2014: New Jersey, Pennsylvania Lead Immigration Reform by Enacting DREAM Act Legislation

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New Jersey has joined 15 other states that are taking the lead in pushing forth immigration reform laws.

Last Tuesday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie held a ceremonial bill singing, with young students in attendance, to begin the discounted in-state college tuition program for eligible undocumented immigrants. According to Philly.com, New Jersey and 15 other states have passed similar DREAM Act laws that focus on providing educational help to undocumented students. 

Although immigrants rights groups continue to push for comprehensive reform on a federal level, states are now the leaders in enacting immigration reform. 

"2014 is going to be a year with lots of movement at the state level," said Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, a Washington organization with member groups in 25 states.

"The trend you are seeing here is to advance undocumented immigrants' rights by building momentum at the state level," she continued. 

Frank Sharry, the founder of America's voice, a Washington-based group that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants, said the the momentum at the state level for immigration reform is a recent development. 

"There has been a dramatic turnaround in the past two years," he said. "Two years ago [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry was cratering [as a Republican presidential nominee] in part because he supported the Texas DREAM Act. Mitt Romney was advocating self-deportation. States were copying Arizona and Alabama with harsh laws.

"Fast-forward to today," said Sharry, "and Chris Christie is leaning into his state's DREAM Act as a way to improve his appeal as a GOP candidate."

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in 2001, and has been refiled in different ways over the years. It was filibustered by the Senate in 2010. 

The comprehensive reform bill passed by the Senate this past June incorporated the federal DREAM Act. 

Its main purpose is to provide a pathway to legal status for America's estimated 2.1 million undocumented college-age youth, who are called "dreamers" by supporters of the act. 

Under the legislation, college-age youth who have clean criminal records, entered the U.S. as minors, completed high school or GEDs and completed at least two years of college or served two years in the military can obtain a legal residency. 

The largest number of immigrants eligible for the DREAM Act live in every state, with the largest number in California (26 percent). New Jersey has 7 percent.

Pennsylvania has less undocumented immigrants than New Jersey. However, Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, sponsored the Pennsylvania DREAM Act legislation, saying it is "the right to thing to do," and that it is an "investment" in Pennsylvania. The act would offer in-state tuition and low-interest student loans to the state's estimated 30,000 young immigrants who are eligible for the act. 

Under the bill, Pennsylvania high school grads and students with GEDs who are undocumented would be eligible to attend 14 state universities or four state-related colleges at a lower in-state rate. 

Undocumented youth who attend Pennsylvania's state-sponsored colleges currently pay the out-of-state tuition rate, which is almost double the amount of in-state tuition. 

Andrew Hooever, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, said in May while testifying at the legislature's Education Committee that the legislation "recognizes the reality that these students are Pennsylvania residents who deserve the same access to higher education [as] fellow graduates. At its core, this legislation is about fairness."

The bill is currently awaiting further action.

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