Last year, Giancarlo Tello had to drop out of Rutgers University in Newark because he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition.
This happened even though he lived in New Jersey. The problem was that Tello, 23, is from Peru and was undocumented when he came to this country at age 6.
In New Jersey, children of undocumented immigrants were not eligible for the lower tuition rates available to students who are citizens. Tello, who identifies himself as an “undocumented Dreamer,” referring to the Dream Act, saw the tuition rules as discriminatory and began to work to change them.
On Friday, Tello and countless other so-called Dreamers in New Jersey had cause for celebration.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill that allows undocumented student immigrants who have attended at least three years of high school in the state to qualify for the lower fees.
Key to Christie's decision was a state Senate compromise that dropped a provision allowing undocumented students to also be eligible for state financial aid if they qualified under income guidelines, according to the Associated Press.
Tello said he and fellow members of the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition put a lot of time and energy into helping get the legislation passed. The coalition reached out to communities throughout the state, from churches to university presidents.
The battle had been fought for several years, though. In 2010, presidents from 19 community colleges, all part of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, also backed the Dream Act in a letter sent to the New Jersey legislature.
“Seeing the bill finally be signed into law is a real victory for our state and the nation in general,” Tello said.
The bill signing is also a personal triumph.
“It means I will finally go back to school without being discriminated against in terms of tuition rates,” he said. “I can get my bachelor’s and keep working more toward social justice.”
While Tello is happy about the news, he said more is needed.
“Gov. Christie cut off the tuition assistance grant portion of the bill, which is something our community still deserves,” he said. “We only got some equality and we will come back and fight for the rest.”
New Jersey joins 15 other states, including California and Texas, that have passed similar legislation.
In a statement to NJ.com, Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, said a public ceremony would follow in the weeks ahead but a time and date had not been set yet.