Christie Reaches Deal on Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will sign Democrat-sponsored legislation to make children of undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges, a decision that may anger the Republican Party’s influential Tea Party wing.

It signaled Christie’s willingness to give ground on an issue favored by Democrats, just as he did in October when he left unchallenged a court ruling recognizing gay marriage, and in 2012, when he ended his opposition to seniority job protection for teachers.

The governor’s apostasy has cost him in some quarters: Voters who said they favored the Tea Party placed Christie behind Texas Senator Ted Cruz as a 2016 presidential candidate in a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Dec. 18. Yet his decision on immigration may be a calculated gamble.

“This is the kind of immigration bill that is going to irritate the Tea Party here and nationally -- he knows this,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs. “The calculation clearly is to continue courting Republicans who believe this is an issue the party can’t ignore anymore.”

Desirable Bloc

At least 16 U.S. states allow the tuition policy, according to a July study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a lobbying and research group in Denver. Among them, California, New Mexico and Texas permit such students also to receive state financial aid.

Texas Governor Rick Perry was criticized during the 2012 Republican presidential primary for having signed such a law in his state. Chief among the critics was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who went on to become the party’s nominee, only to lose to incumbent Democrat Barack Obama.

In the wake of the election, some Republicans spoke of the necessity of wooing Hispanics, a fast-growing voting bloc that decisively went for Obama.

Christie, 51, told reporters in Trenton yesterday that the deal is an example of how government should work.

“You can have public arguments about a particular piece of legislation or a policy position and at the same time be having quiet, private conversations where you say: ’How are we going to bring people together and get this done?’” Christie said. “This will be once again be an example of New Jersey showing how you come to bipartisan agreement.”

No Money

The Assembly today approved a bill passed earlier in the Senate. When the legislation reached Christie’s desk, he said, his plan was to issue a conditional veto, return it to lawmakers for agreed-upon changes, await their vote and sign the bill into law.

The governor, elected to a second term over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono in November, signed on after lawmakers dropped proposed access to some state financial-aid programs, according to Senate President Stephen Sweeney from West Deptford, the state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat.

“In good conscience, we cannot let these young people go another semester paying double tuition,” Sweeney said in Trenton as he announced the deal alongside immigrant and student activists. “We still view this as a victory for kids who are American in every way but on paper. They need to be treated fairly.”

New Home

Udi Ofer, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the deal, though he was critical of the lack of further tuition assistance.

“Governor Chris Christie is preventing many students from being treated equally by New Jersey -- the state in which they pay taxes, have gone to school and call home,” Ofer said in a statement.

Tea Party activists told a New Jersey Assembly committee Dec. 12 that the legislation would undermine the rights of U.S. citizens and stress taxpayer resources.

Christie is the favorite among possible 2016 Republican contenders, with 18 percent support, on a list that includes Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, according to the PublicMind poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey.

Yet among Republicans with a favorable view of the Tea Party, his appeal is lesser, with Cruz at 21 percent; Christie, 15 percent; Paul, 14 percent; and Rubio, 12 percent.

The telephone poll, of 1,002 adults from Dec. 9 through 15, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Political Immunity

“Christie has a range of problems with the Tea Party, and his rivals are going to carve up the Tea Party vote,” said Peter Woolley, a Fairleigh Dickinson politics professor. “Adding one more problem with the Tea Party isn’t going to hurt him.”

Christie praised Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy ahead of last year’s Election Day, angering some in his party who blamed him for Romney’s loss. In January, Christie attacked Republicans in the House for delaying a vote on Hurricane Sandy disaster aid.

During October’s partial government shutdown, which was driven by the Tea Party faction in Congress, Christie criticized Obama and lawmakers from both parties. He said the tuition deal shows how parties can work together.

“This is what compromise looks like,” Christie said. He said he would sign the tuition legislation at once, putting it into effect immediately.

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