Christie Is Said to Waffle on In-State Tuition for People Living in U.S. Illegally

The New York Times

Gov. Chris Christie is under fire from the same Latino constituency he courted so heavily during his re-election campaign.


During his re-election campaign this year, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey made the Latino vote a priority, hiring a full-time director for Hispanic outreach, opening bilingual campaign offices and securing key Latino endorsements.

He even spoke out in favor of legislation allowing in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants, thrilling many Latino and immigrant voters. For his efforts, about half the Hispanic voters cast ballots for him, helping him win a landslide victory.

Now, however, Mr. Christie is under fire from the very same constituency he courted so heavily.

Immigrants and their advocates have accused the governor of waffling this week in his support of the in-state tuition legislation as he weighs a possible bid for president.

“When he was running for election he was running to be able to say that, ‘Look, I am the only Republican who can win the Latino vote,’ ” Giancarlo Tello, campaign manager for the New Jersey Tuition Equity for Dreamers Coalition, which has been lobbying for the bills, said on Wednesday. “Now that he already got the election, he’s already flip-flopping.”

The outcry highlights the challenges to Mr. Christie as he tries to govern a liberal-leaning state while also positioning himself as a Republican presidential candidate who can appeal to conservative voters across the country.

For years, immigrants’ advocates in New Jersey have lobbied for legislation that would allow unauthorized immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities as well as apply for state financial aid, known as tuition equality.

Last week, the State Senate approved such a bill; a version is pending in the State Assembly.

If the law passes, and the governor signs it, New Jersey would join at least 16 other states that make in-state tuition available to immigrants in the country illegally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only three states allow them access to state financial aid.

During his monthly radio show on Monday night, Mr. Christie said that while he still supported helping unauthorized immigrants pay lower tuition at state schools, he did not endorse the entirety of the Senate bill.

“They’re overreaching and they’re making it unsignable,” he said.

While he did not detail all of his concerns with the bill, he seemed troubled that it would allow out-of-state students attending New Jersey boarding schools to qualify as state residents and be able to pay in-state college tuition.

This provision, he contended, would make New Jersey a “magnet state” for immigrants in the country illegally.

Unless the bill was modified, the governor warned, he would not sign it.

Advocates said his comments were at best vague and confusing, and at worst a clear reversal of statements he made before the election.

During a speech in mid-October to the Latino Labor Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, a major advocacy group, the governor, who had often said he opposed allowing in-state tuition for unauthorized immigrants, surprised his hosts by urging state lawmakers to allow students in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition.

“We need to get to work in the state legislature on things like making sure that there’s tuition equality for everybody in New Jersey,” he said.

He reaffirmed this position several days later during a debate in his re-election campaign, urging lawmakers to “talk about how we could responsibly fund tuition equality.”

Critics said that some of Mr. Christie’s comments on Monday were so puzzling that they made him seem as if he were inventing reasons to obstruct the bill.

At one point, he seemed to make a comparison between the state legislation and a failed federal bill, also known as the Dream Act, saying he did not want “a program that’s richer than the federal program.” While the bills have similar names, they are very different: The federal bill creates a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children.

Mr. Christie has not commented publicly on the matter since the radio interview.

“Frankly it’s a game we’re all playing: trying to divine what these comments mean,” said Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “It is not a way to have a conversation about a policy issue.”

But a spokesman for Mr. Christie said in an email on Wednesday that the governor “supports New Jerseyans receiving in-state tuition, no matter how they came to this country.”

Martin Perez, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance, defended the governor, arguing that Mr. Christie’s statements have been consistent, if nuanced.

“I don’t think the governor has flip-flopped,” said Mr. Perez, whose organization endorsed Mr. Christie in the campaign. “The governor has been clear that he supports the issue.”

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