Assessing the DREAM Act One Year Later

By Brenda Flanagan

“We migrated on false visas and ended up over-staying those visas,” said Deya Aldana.

Aldana barely recalls arriving here in New Jersey as a toddler from Mexico. The 20-year-old honor student anticipates graduating in May with a two-year associate’s degree from Essex County College. But her dreams exceed her bank account.

“It’s been really hard. I was a top student in high school – I graduated top 20 of my class. I faced a lot of opposition. Some universities straight out told me, ‘We don’t give them anything because after all they’re not supposed to be here,'” Aldana explained.

Aldana is one of several hundred so-called “DREAMers” — undocumented immigrants who became eligible to pay the lower, more affordable in-state public college tuition rate after Gov. Chris Christie signed the “DREAM Act” last January, making New Jersey one of 18 states offering tuition equality. But a recent study by New Jersey Policy Perspective shows DREAMers did not rush to enroll: just 138 students in the spring 2014 semester, 335 the following fall totaling 473 tuition equality students. That’s statewide.

“I think New Jersey is missing out right now. I know the children are,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer.

Schaer says many lawmakers had expected a DREAM Act stampede.

“There was such consternation and concern that New Jersey would receive tens of thousands of applications. In reality, the number’s 470 or so. So the number is quite small,” Schaer said.

“The bill was enacted five days before Christmas so that the spring semester was pretty much of a wipe-out. I’m not too surprised at the low number enrolled,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective President Gordon MacInnes.

Advocates say it’s all about the money: New Jersey needs to join the other five states that also offer DREAMers state tuition assistance. They note that Rutgers’ in-state tuition rate’s $13,500, but undocumented families earn just $34,000.

“It’s beyond their ability. It’s beyond their dream. We need to make their dream a reality,” said Schaer.

“We’ve invested all this money in the high school education of these kids, and we’re basically letting them drop off the end of the cliff,” MacInnes said.

But Gov. Christie remains adamantly opposed to financial aid for DREAMers.

“I want tuition equality for folks, but I don’t want a program that’s richer than the federal program and richer than other states which would make us become a magnet state for people,” he said.

Aldana wants to enroll in a four-year university and major in political science.

“It might take a little bit longer than most. It might take a lot more sacrifice, a lot less sleep, but I’ll get there eventually,” she said.

Aldana will not be denied her dream, but she hopes that tuition assistance for undocumented students will make achieving that dream less of a financial nightmare.