Piash Ahamed has been living in New Jersey since legally emigrating from Bangladesh with his family as a child. He attended state public schools, graduated from high school at the top of his class and was accepted at Rutgers University.
But, now 18, he recently became classified an illegal immigrant after his family lost a fight for asylum. He dropped out of Rutgers after the out-of-state tuition rates he was charged as an undocumented student proved unaffordable.
"The taxpayers have already invested thousands of dollars in public education for kids like me," Ahamed said. "Why are they denying us the chance to go to college and get jobs in which we become taxpaying contributors instead of part of the underground economy?"
Lobbying for a change
Ahamed is one of many undocumented students lobbying for New Jersey to join the 10 states that allow illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates for college. It's a federal mandate that students, regardless of their immigration statuses, be provided with education from kindergarten through high school.
Of the six states that take in the most immigrants, New Jersey and Florida are the only two that don't have some form of the in-state tuition legislation.
The idea has failed to pass New Jersey's legislature, and a recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll found most residents oppose it. But it's getting renewed support from the recent recommendations of a statewide panel on immigrant issues and the backing of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who has supported the idea since his days in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Christopher Connors is one of several lawmakers opposed to the idea. While Connors, R-Forked River, says he's sympathetic to young people who were brought to this country as children by their parents, he says he doesn't believe they should be eligible for taxpayer-supported benefits.
"We have a lot of hardworking people in this state struggling under these economic times," he said. "To see that their tax dollars are going to individuals who are here illegally is an affront to all taxpayers."
Study sees benefits to degrees
A recent report by New Jersey's Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy argues that students who obtain college degrees are more likely to join the formal labor force, pay taxes and remain in the state, which has the nation's highest out-migration rate of students after high school.
At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is a co-sponsor of similar legislation, called the DREAM Act, which was reintroduced in the Senate in March.
A current version of the bill would make students eligible for in-state tuition by offering conditional legal status to those brought to the U.S. as children at age 15 or under. They must have lived in the country for at least five years and graduated from high school.
If they enroll in college or the military, they would be able to pursue paths to U.S. citizenship.
The federal legislation was endorsed earlier this week by the College Board, a consortium of 5,000 schools best known for its SAT college admission tests. The board says states that have such programs generally see increased college revenue by enrolling additional students, rather than financial burdens caused by an influx of immigrants paying cheaper tuition.
The report estimates about 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Less than 10 percent of them attend college, compared to 75 percent of their native-born classmates.
Up to 2,000 students could be affected
In New Jersey, the legislation would affect an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year.
The Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, which favors tighter immigration controls, is lobbying against such bills in New Jersey and is fighting the DREAM Act.
"The people of this country are in no mood for replacing American workers and American students with illegal aliens in limited jobs and classroom seats," said William Gheen, the committee's president. "The anger is intensifying each week."
Jane Oates, the executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, which provides policy development and advocacy for the state's higher-education system, said extending in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants doesn't change college admission criteria, only tuition rates.
"It wouldn't give undocumented students preferential treatment," Oates said. "These are children who have gone through New Jersey public schools, don't know any other system and qualified to go to college. These (are) kids in New Jersey who have worked hard and played by the rules and are hitting a brick wall when it comes to college."
Several undocumented students from New Jersey have become national voices in the fight for in-state tuition.
Marisol Conde-Hernandez, an illegal immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, who was brought to New Jersey as a baby, has been lobbying for state and federal legislation. She says that without it students like her who spend their entire lives in the U.S. hit a dead end after high school.
"The reason I got in (to college) was not, 'That poor immigrant,'" she said. "It's that I persevered, I'm academically talented, I'm strong. I work hard for where I am and everything I do. It's not a free incentive."