TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- New Jersey lawmakers approved a bill Monday that would allow those in the country illegally to qualify for in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
Dozens of students and supporters packed the state Assembly Budget Committee to argue the measure would allow for those here illegally to qualify for an affordable higher education.
If it becomes law, the measure would take effect in the fall semester. It also allows for community colleges to charge those here illegally the in-county rate.
To be eligible, a student must have attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years and have a diploma from a state high school or the equivalent.
Students also must submit an affidavit stating they've filed or will file an application to legalize their status as soon as they are eligible.
Three citizens testified against the bill and not all lawmakers agreed it was a good idea, including Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Morris Republican.
Webber said the provisions of the bill penalize those here legally by charging them more. He also cited the risk of legal immigrants losing a chance to attend college because of limited number of admissions coupled with more people applying.
"It would treat American citizens worse than undocumented citizens," Webber said.
Jeffrey Hastings of Whippany argued that if state institutions are allowed to charge people here illegally lower tuition, "then what does that say to the ones that play by the rules?"
But a slew of supporters, including students who are here illegally struggling to pay college tuition, said the bill is the only way to secure their future.
Marisol Conde-Hernandez told the panel of how she paid her own way through Rutgers University at the out-of-state rate because she was here illegally. Conde-Hernandez said she would greatly benefit from in-state tuition when she enrolls in Rutgers School of Law this year. She challenged those who opposed the measure calling their arguments outdated.
"Can I contribute more to you as a bartender or as an attorney?" Conde-Hernandez asked the panel. "Perhaps someday I may be sitting in your seat."
Renata Mauriz, a Morris County Community College student whose family emigrated from Brazil, said she constantly worries about paying for her education and also struggles with not having access to state and federal aid.
"How am I going to be able to afford the next semester?" Mauriz said she often asks herself. "How am I going to be able to continue my education this year?"
Also in favor was Donna Chiera, president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. She said as a grade school teacher in Perth Amboy, she told her young students that if they excelled in school they could be anything they wanted.
But upon graduating high school, Chiera said, many students realized they couldn't afford the education they needed to land top jobs.
"The fact that we're not doing this makes me sad because I'm lying to students," Chiera said. "Give every student who graduates a New Jersey high school, which isn't easy, an opportunity to meet their dreams."