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N.J. Student Aid Bid Rejected Due to Mom’s Immigration Status

NEWARK, N.J. – An American-born high school student from New Jersey has been denied state tuition assistance because her mother is an undocumented immigrant, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU and a Rutgers University legal clinic are representing the high school senior identified only as A.Z. in an appeal filed on her behalf in a case they claim violates both state and federal laws.

The 17-year-old, who has lived in New Jersey for at least a decade and is a graduating senior, applied for a Tuition Aid Grant from the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, or HESAA. Her state aid application was rejected, according to the ACLU, with the explanation that “her parents are not legal New Jersey residents.”

HESAA representative Marnie Grodman, the acting director of legal matters for the agency, said she could not comment on active litigation or specific student cases. She said the agency requires students or, if they are not yet legally adults, their parents to prove they have been domiciled in New Jersey for a period of at least a year immediately before the academic period for which they are requesting aid.

Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU’s New Jersey chapter, said what appears to be at issue in this case and similar rejections he’s seen in recent months is HESAA’s definition of “domiciled.”

“HESAA is apparently taking the position that, to be domiciled in New Jersey, you must be a legal (U.S.) resident, which is contrary to established New Jersey Supreme Court precedent,” he said.

Ronald K. Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic said immigration and legal advocacy groups have seen an uptick in New Jersey of students who are U.S. citizens born to undocumented immigrants getting rejected for tuition aid.

“As far as we can tell, it’s not an isolated incident or a bureaucratic mistake; it’s clearly a policy decision HESAA has decided to take,” Chen said. “We respectfully think it’s not lawful to discriminate against a U.S. citizen because of their parents’ status.”

Grodman said HESAA had not changed its policies or reinterpreted its regulations.

Chen said the student at the center of the case was a hardworking senior at the top of her class. Both Chen and the ACLU declined to give her hometown or her mother’s nationality, saying they wished to protect the family’s identity.

The ACLU’s appeal, filed Thursday with the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court, argues that the immigration status of an applicant’s parents is not listed as a determining factor in the legislation that created the aid program. They claim the denial violates equal protection laws.

Access to education for the American-born children of immigrants or undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children has been the subject of fierce debate in New Jersey and at the federal and local level nationwide.

Much of the debate has focused on whether undocumented immigrant students should be allowed to enroll in higher education or pay in-state tuition rates.

Opponents say allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in college takes seats away from legal residents, usurps scarce taxpayer-funded resources and encourages illegal immigration. Supporters of granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants say those who are brought to the United States as children and grow up in the local school system are faced with few options after graduating high school regardless of how hard they work.

Several of New Jersey’s community colleges, and some private colleges, currently allow undocumented immigrants to enroll or don’t ask for immigration status on school applications. The County College of Morris, after pressure from the freeholder board and members of the public, recently reversed part of a new policy that allowed undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria to enroll at in-county rates.

State legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrant students who grow up in New Jersey to pay in-state tuition failed to garner enough support for a vote.

In the current case, both Chen and Shalom emphasized that their client is a legal resident, born in the United States, who meets the criteria for state tuition aid.

Even if the HESAA application were to demand the immigration status of the parents as a prerequisite, Shalom said, it would be superseded by federal and state constitutions that forbid discrimination against U.S. citizens because of a parent’s status.

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