April 12, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan
By NOEL PANGILINAN
STEPHANIE Bello of Passaic, NJ has seen enough. She has seen too many bright classmates at the Passaic High School who were not able to go to college.
“Most of us went to school with undocumented students who are geniuses,” the 20-year old Bello, now a junior at West Paterson University, said. “I have friends who graduate at the top of the class. But they didn’t have documentation, or they couldn’t accept most scholarships because they couldn’t do the financial application.”
So on Tuesday, April 9, Bello and several other student leaders led a group of fellow students, community residents, advocates and even children in a rally in front of the Passaic City Hall to support a resolution endorsing two state bills providing in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented New Jersey youth.
Less than an hour after the rally, the City Council passed unanimously the resolution co-sponsored by City Council President Gary Schaer urging the New Jersey state legislature to pass A1659/S2355 and A3509/S2479.
A1659/S2355 would allow almost all New Jersey high school graduates access to in-state tuition rates, regardless of immigration status.
A3509/S2479 calls for in-state tuition rates plus access to state financial aid in New Jersey’s public colleges and universities for anyone with a high school diploma or GED certification from an educational institution in the state regardless of immigration status.
With the endorsement, the City of Passaic became the third local government in New Jersey to endorse the Tuition Equity bills. The Jersey City municipal council endorsed the bills on Feb. 27, while Plainfield passed its own resolution just the night before Passaic City’s endorsement.
The jam-packed crowd inside the session hall erupted in applause as soon as the Schaer announced that the City Council has officially approved the resolution.
“Education is a right, not a privilege,” Bello, the administrative secretary of the Mexican American Progress Movement, said.
“Without in-state tuition available for everyone, we are in effect making it almost impossible for a specific demographic to obtain higher education. We all know that it’s becoming very difficult to become successful without education,” she said.
In-state tuition refers to the practice of universities and colleges to provide lower tuition rates and state education grants to students who are residents of that state.
In most U.S. states, undocumented youth who are unable to provide proof of their legal stay in the country are not eligible for in-state tuition and financial aid. As a result, the undocumented have no choice but to pay prohibitive out-of-state tuition to attend public colleges and universities, despite their long-term residency in the United States.
As an example, Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, charges an annual tuition of $13,073 for in-state students. Out-of-state students pay $26,393 a year.
Currently, only 13 states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, according to the National Immigration Law Center. These are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Rhode Island.
Bello said although she was born here in the U.S., she was not eligible for state financial aid. “My parents were not able to prove our residency here. That was a little bit weird because I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said.
Another youth leader, David Galvez, 22, has a different story to tell. Unlike Bello who was born here, Galvez said he was born in Mexico and came here when he was almost 17 years old. “When I came here, I had to pay a coyote. We passed through the desert, we crossed a stream.”
Unlike Bello, he does not have the papers nor was he eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. “I missed the DACA cut off by five months,” said Galvez, who is the vice president of the Mexican American Progress Movement and team coordinator for Passaic County DREAM Act Coalition.
Even if he does not qualify for now for these benefits, Galvez said he knows there are a lot of people who would. “Even if I can’t , I would do it for them.”
More than 75 percent of Passaic City residents are immigrants, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Pew Hispanic Center said New Jersey has the fifth highest population of undocumented immigrants.