NEWARK, NJ —Gov. Phil Murphy on May 9 signed the DREAM Act, a bill created by Congress allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children the ability to obtain legal status and apply for state financial aid assistance. With the legislation., New Jersey joins nine other states nationally to make both tuition and financial aid available to DREAMers.

“Tuition equity and equal access to financial aid are moral standards that we as public officials must uphold for all New Jersey students, whether they were born here or not,” Murphy said during the ceremonial bill signing held at Rutgers University, Robeson Campus Center in Newark. “These young people came to this country as children, were educated in our schools, and are just as American as anyone else. I’m proud to sign this legislation to help these students achieve their educational goals and their pursuit of a successful future.”

The legislation, S-699, allows a student who meets the requirements established under the in-state tuition law signed in 2013 to qualify for and participate in any student financial aid program administered by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) or the Secretary of Higher Education (OSHE). The requirements to qualify for the S-699 financial aid include attending high school in New Jersey for three or more years; graduating from a New Jersey high school or receiving a high school equivalency; registering and enrolling in a public institution of higher education no earlier than the 2013-2014 academic year; and filing an affidavit stating that the student has filed an application to legalize their immigration status.

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In addition to the Garden State, in-state tuition and financial aid is currently available to DREAMers in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Hawaii.

Former Governor Chris Christie conditionally vetoed a tuition and financial aid equality bill in 2013 and removed the state financial aid sections though keeping the parts of the bill that established in-state tuition. Sponsors of the legislation include Senators M. Teresa Ruiz, Sandra B. Cunningham and Nellie Pou as well as Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer and Assemblywomen Annette Quijano and Mila M. Jasey. Additionally, on a local level, the bill received support from Senator Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. 

"The United States of America is rightfully proud of it's reputation as the 'land of opportunity,'  This legislation signed into law by Governor Murphy will give young immigrants, who have only known this country as their home, the opportunity to succeed and be a productive part of society," said Diegnan, adding, "That is what the American Dream is all about."

“Our jobs are not done this is just a first step,” said Ruiz, who hails from Newark and serves as the Senate Education Committee Chair, adding that the most important change citizens can collectively make is “moving our moral compass to protect our most useful asset... our children.” Ruiz, who was instrumental in the crafting of this legislation, became teary-eyed while speaking about a student who is now an attorney after a 10-year process to gain the necessary funding to reach that goal.  

“New Jersey has invested in all of our students throughout their K-12 academic careers,” added  Ruiz. “To limit the ability of our DREAMers to attend college after their high school graduation does a disservice to them and the entire state. Today, we are fulfilling a promise made to our DREAMers, who only know New Jersey as their home, that they are entitled to the same financial opportunities as their peers to fulfill their higher education aspirations.  Whenever our state embraces the talents, intellect, creativity and determination of its youth, its future, like theirs’ becomes brighter and richer.”

During the bill signing event, Esder Chong, a junior at Rutgers, spoke about being born in South Korea but growing up in New Jersey from the age of six. Chong said she spent many hours seeking scholarships and financial aid from a pool that is too small and creates an uncertain future for far too many young people.  

“I’m a Rutgers Business, honors college student and a student athlete, news editor, and president of RU Dreamers. Still, regardless of my work ethic or high GPA, my attendance every semester is uncertain because it’s determined by a limited pool of private scholarships and donors,” said Chong. “I don’t know how many people could not start school, left part way or even with only one semester left until graduation because they were unable to find a scholarship in time for the new semester. How many future doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, and senators has New Jersey lost?”

During Wednesday's event, Murphy gave the pen he used to sign the legislation to Maria Del Cielo Mendez, a high school senior who gave an impassioned speech about her journey and how she is not afraid and will continue to fight for the future she wants in the country she grew up in.

“This day is something that we didn’t think we’d ever see under the Trump administration. Again, nine months ago I didn’t think I’d have the right to drive and work and nine months later we just won financial aid access, so it means everything,” Del Cielo Mendez told TAPInto

Murphy vowed to continue to fight those who oppose legislation to protect DREAMers. “President Trump and many of his Republican enablers in Congress cast the worst aspersions on our DREAMers,” said the governor. “But we in New Jersey know better. We know that economic progress cannot be achieved without social progress and that social progress cannot be achieved without economic progress.”

When asked by a student if he could count on the governor’s support if Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that allows some individuals brought to the U.S. from other countries as children a chance to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to become eligible for a work permit, is canceled once and for all Murphy promised his unwavering support and said he would do everything that he could.

“It’s a very important day for a lot of people,” Karen Correa, a sophomore at Essex County College and president of the college’s We the Dreamers group, told TAPInto.

“We fight because immigrant young people from across the state have been organizing for nearly a decade, first to win in-state tuition, and now for financial aid,” said Chong, thanking Murphy and the other officials and legislators brave enough to defend students like her. “RU Dreamers, UndocuRutgers, Make the Road New Jersey, Wind of the Spirit and countless others have joined together to fight back, to organize, and to stand up for our dignity and our future."

She continued, "“Our federal government continues to launch unprecedented attacks on immigrant young people. We cannot be silent as ICE targets immigrants, including DREAMers like me. Last week, seven states sued to end DACA forever. But, today, New Jersey, our state, is showing has our backs.”

Those interested in the state of New Jersey can apply for the new DREAMers financial aid by applying at: