After saying he would sign a Dream Act in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday raised new objections to the version his state Assembly is getting ready to send him — raising questions about whether he is playing politics or trying to win the best possible deal from the Legislature.
Mr. Christie said during his recent re-election campaign that he would sign a bill granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, but has balked at the specific bill winding its way through the Legislature.
The Republican governor said he has three objections: The bill allows financial aid in addition to in-state tuition, treats out-of-state illegal immigrants who attend private school in New Jersey better than out-of-state citizens who do the same, and doesn’t have a sunset date.
“I’m for tuition equality. I’m not for adding tuition aid grants,” Mr. Christie said at a news conference Monday.
The governor won re-election a month ago with significant Hispanic support — 51 percent according to exit polls.
Immigrant rights groups cheered Mr. Christie’s victory as a sign that Republicans can compete for Hispanic votes if they soften their stance on immigration. They compared that with the loss of GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in Virginia, who took a stricter stance on immigration en route to a narrow defeat.
But Mr. Christie’s new hurdles could complicate his pitch to Hispanics, particularly since in-state tuition has become one of several key immigration litmus tests for governors eyeing presidential runs.
Giancarlo Tello, a leader with the New Jersey Dream Act Coalition, said it’s up to Mr. Christie to be constructive in the debate. Speaking before Mr. Christie’s news conference, he said activists were looking to the governor for guidance.
“If he’s truly genuine about wanting those issues to pass, he should come work with the Assembly and the advocates and say this is what I want,” Mr. Tello said.
The state Senate last month passed its version of the bill, which had been pending for months.
It would grant in-state tuition rates to students who attended New Jersey high schools for at least three years, who graduated from a school in the state, and who said they were trying to seek legal status.
If Mr. Christie objected to that language, Senate leaders said, he could have said something earlier.
But speaking to reporters Monday, Mr. Christie said he never meant during the campaign to say he supported a specific bill.
“I thought the Legislature should move in the lame-duck session toward tuition equality in New Jersey — period. That’s what I said. I didn’t support any particular piece of legislation,” the governor said.
In an interview with The Washington Times before Mr. Christie spoke, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, who is chief sponsor of the Dream Act in the state’s lower house, said he plans to take up the Senate version.
The only change he would seek — and it’s unclear whether it would need to be amended to the Senate bill or added as a budget item — would be to find enough money so that Dream Act students don’t siphon limited funds away from others who are receiving financial aid.
He dismissed Mr. Christie’s concern about out-of-state Dream Act youths getting special treatment by saying that if they are attending private schools, their families are wealthy enough that they won’t need in-state college tuition rates.
Mr. Johnson said a bill will reach Mr. Christie’s desk and the governor will have a decision to make.
“He made two public statements supporting the bill. Now he has one. He has to do what he has to do now,” Mr. Johnson said.
At his news conference, Mr. Christie said the burden is on the Legislature.
“If they send me a clean tuition equity bill, I will sign it,” he said. “If they don’t, I won’t sign it.”
The New Jersey Office of Legislative Services said it was unable to calculate how much the Dream Act would cost the state’s public college system in lost tuition payments. The office said state schools might end up increasing the number of out-of-state students they accept in order to make up for that lost revenue.
Mr. Christie is facing pressure from editorial boards in his state that have accused him of a “flip-flop.”
“The real reason for his flip-flop? Christie has his eyes on the presidency. And if he has to roll over Latinos to get there, he’ll do it,” The Star-Ledger said in an editorial Sunday.
Immigration is a tricky issue within the Republican Party.
In the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took heat for having signed the country’s first in-state tuition bill more than a decade earlier.
Mr. Christie appeared to be opposed to in-state tuition early on. According to press accounts, he criticized the federal Dream Act, which would have legalized young illegal immigrants and granted them eligibility for in-state tuition rates, saying that would have amounted to “subsidizing” them with taxpayers’ money.
But in an appearance in October with the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, Mr. Christie announced that he supported the state Dream Act and said he wanted it to pass in the lame-duck legislative session, which runs through mid-January.