Dream Act Poses Political Dilemma for Christie

PHOTO: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie greets supporters after winning a second term at the Asbury Park Convention Hall on November 05, 2013 in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he supports offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, but he won’t sign a bill passed by the state Senate that does just that.

The Republican governor came out in favor of the legislation, known as the New Jersey DREAM Act, last month during his run for reelection. But Christie said the state Senate’s version, which provides in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students, goes too far.

“They’re overreaching and making it unsignable and making the benefits richer than the federal program, the federal Dream Act, that’s simply not acceptable for me," Christie said Monday evening during a radio call-in show, according to The Star-Ledger.

Christie’s decision drew sharp criticism from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), who accused Christie of flip-flopping to appeal to a more conservative audience. Christie is a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

“When he was running for governor he supported it and now that he is running for president, he does not,” Sweeney said in a statement published by PolitickerNJ.

The state Assembly is considering a different version that offers in-state tuition, but not financial aid access for undocumented students. Christie also pointed to a loophole in the law that would allow out-of-state students of any immigration status to receive benefits if they attend private high school in New Jersey, according to The Star-Ledger.

Still, the episode illustrates the political challenge that the in-state tuition bill poses for Christie. The legislation could help more than 10,000 New Jersey residents by offering them tuition costs on par with those available to residents who are born in the U.S. or legal immigrants.

Christie cruised to reelection in part because of his strong support among Latino voters. He campaigned hard in heavily Latino places like Union City. He won 51 percent of Latino voters in that area, surpassing his 32 percent total from 2009.

His campaign was held up as a model for Republicans who are searching for a way to appeal to Latino voters on the national level.

"Getting 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, I'm very proud of that," Christie said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” this month. "Because I've worked hard with the Hispanic community to let them see how our policies can help their families.”

Now, he’s receiving criticism from Latino groups who say he reneged on a campaign promise.

“Governor Christie has no reason to oppose the NJ DREAM Act with access to state aid and every reason to support it,” the New Jersey Dream Act coalition said in a statement.

But if he eventually signs the Dream Act, Christie could turn off Republican primary voters he’ll need if runs for president in three years.

During a GOP presidential primary debate in October 2011, candidate Rick Perry was pilloried for signing a similar bill as Texas governor a decade ago.

Ironically, one of Perry’s critics on immigration two years ago was Christie. The New Jersey governor reversed his opposition to an in-state tuition bill just this year.

"I do not believe that, for the people who came here illegally, that we should be subsidizing, with taxpayer money, through in-state tuition, their education," Christie said during his 2011 speech criticizing Perry. "Let me be very clear, from my perspective, that is not a heartless position. That is a common-sense position."

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