- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held a ceremonial signing Tuesday to highlight his approval of the state’s new Dream Act law granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition, in a move that signals immigration will once again be a major issue in the 2016 presidential primaries.

Mr. Christie, the new chairman of the Republican Governors Association, praised the illegal immigrants who will benefit from in-state tuition as “an inspiration to us,” and touted his signature on the bill as proof that he can be bipartisan, contrasting it with what he saw as gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.

“Our job I believe as a government is to give every one of these children, who we have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in, an opportunity to maximize that investment for their own benefit, for the benefit of their families, and for the benefit of our state and our country,” Mr. Christie said at the ceremonial signing, held at a heavily Hispanic school.

The bill, which he signed privately last month after a somewhat feisty battle with the legislature, allows illegal immigrants who attended New Jersey high schools for at least three years to get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

But beyond the details, Mr. Christie’s signature is a bold statement ahead of the 2016 presidential primaries, where the governor is expected to compete for the GOP’s nomination.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was the first governor to sign an in-state tuition bill in 2001, saw his own 2012 campaign suffer after he defended that move and accused opponents of being heartless.

SEE ALSO: Adios muchacho: Christie threatens veto of NJ’s Dream Act

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to see an immigration crackdown, said Mr. Christie’s signature will likely be an issue in a presidential contest, most likely as confirmation for many voters of his “relative liberalism from a Republican perspective.”

“The issue is a litmus test,” he said. “The Republican primary electorate is pretty hawkish on immigration, obviously, but it’s more a litmus test for credibility across the board. In other words, immigration is a way a lot of voters will judge whether a candidate is an establishment figure trying to use them, or really gets their concerns on a broad range of issues.”

Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, had the strictest immigration stance of any major party nominee in modern political history, including vowing to veto the national Dream Act to legalize young illegal immigrants.

By contrast, President Obama used executive action in the months ahead of the election to grant tentative legal status to those same young illegal immigrants.

Many analysts credited Mr. Obama’s re-election victory to the two men’s stances on immigration, with the president winning an overwhelming percentage of the Hispanic vote en route to a 51-47 victory.

Some of the potential Republican candidates in 2016 have already staked out positions in favor of legalization, including Sen. Marco Rubio, who led the push for a bill to pass the Senate last year, and Rep. Paul Ryan, who is pushing for action in the House.

Mr. Krikorian said the immigration debate in the GOP will depend in part on whether anyone emerges who is willing to buck big-dollar donors and run on a more populist message that includes cracking down on illegal immigration.

Mr. Christie’s move won praise from Hispanic and immigrant-rights groups, who called on Congress to follow the governor’s bipartisan lead.

“A Republican governor and a Democratic legislature in New Jersey sent a message to Washington: Bipartisan immigration reform can happen,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

Mr. Christie did push back against state lawmakers who had initially made illegal immigrants eligible not only for in-state tuition, but also for taxpayer-funded financial aid.

Sen. Robert Menendez, who worked with Mr. Rubio last year on the Senate’s immigration bill, said it was “unfortunate” Mr. Christie fought against additional taxpayer benefits, but said signing the bill was a good first move.

“I am thrilled to be marching toward a more promising future for Dreamers one step at a time,” he said.

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.

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