New Jersey Controversy Over In-State Tuition, Driver's Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants

By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor

Governor Corzine disagreed with some recommendations from the panel he created. (Photo: NJ Dept. of the Public Advocate)

Governor Corzine disagreed with a recommendation by the panel he created in 2007. (Photo: NJ Dept. of the Public Advocate)

New Jersey has become the latest state to try to fill the gap created by the lack of federal immigration reform. Last week an advisory body created by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine recommended that the state issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and that state colleges allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates.

The Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy issued a 123-page report with a list of measures New Jersey could take to implement “a comprehensive and strategic statewide approach to successfully integrate” some 400,000 undocumented immigrants into the state population. [Visit the panel’s site for the full report or an executive summary in pdf.]

The reaction – much of it critical – has mostly concentrated on the recommendations about in-state tuition and driver’s licenses.

“Allowing illegal aliens to obtain ‘no questions asked’ state driving privileges would undermine New Jersey’s strict licensing laws,” The Gloucester County Times said in an editorial Sunday.

“…it’s a shame that (the panel) muddied the line between legal and illegal immigrants — and went too far, in our opinion, in a few of its recommendations,” The Press of Atlantic City said. “That tends to polarize the debate even further than it already is.”

Governor Corzine himself issued a statement to make clear he does not support the proposal for issuing driver’s licenses to the undocumented.

There are some recommendations, no matter how well intentioned, that cannot be accomplished without a comprehensive policy at the federal level, and drivers’ licenses for the undocumented is one of them.

This is a tremendously important but complex issue that cannot be resolved with piecemeal solutions at the state level absent of a comprehensive federal policy.

[Read full statement from Corzine here.]

Most Jerseyans apparently agree with their governor. According to The Associated Press, a recent Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll “found that out of 803 adults surveyed, 62 percent oppose allowing illegal immigrants living in the state to get some type of limited driver’s license. Just 33 percent favor the idea.”

Undocumented immigrants themselves are, of course, among the minority who support the proposal.

Alejandro Chavez, an undocumented immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, worked in the apple orchards of Washington state for years, driving to and from work with a valid state motor vehicle license.

When he moved to New Jersey seven years ago to work on a Morristown horse farm, he lost his driving privileges. The state told him he couldn’t transfer his driver’s license because he wasn’t a legal U.S. resident.


“We may be undocumented, but we invest a lot into this country,” said Chavez, who now pays $10 a day to get a ride to work. “I can understand that many believe we don’t deserve any rights at all, but I think it’s a better system to have people registered, and their identities verified.”

[The A.P.]

Raymundo Rodríguez immigrated to the U.S. legally but still cannot get a drivers license. (Photo: The A.P.)

Raymundo Rodríguez immigrated to the U.S. legally but still cannot get a driver's license. (Photo: The A.P.)

In some cases, strict licensing rules harm people who have immigrated to the U.S. legally, like Raymundo Rodríguez, originally from Puebla, México. He told The A.P. that, after having a license for over a decade, “delays in his green card application and complications in his work permit” rendered him unable to renew the document under N.J. laws.

The Governor’s office said that while Corzine found the license issue “problematic,” he did support “allowing all resident children in New Jersey the opportunity to attend college at the in-state rate.”

The advisory panel, created in August 2007 and headed by the state’s Public Advocate Ronald Chen, made many other recommendations in its report. Some include: improving linguistic competence in social service agencies; creating “cultural navigators” to help immigrants access the services they need; creating task forces by industry to ensure compliance with labor standards; improving bilingual and ESL education programs.

The panel said the state should not make enrollment mandatory in the controversial worker identification E-Verify program and that Corzine should work with the federal government towards a moratorium on work-site raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It said “community-based jail advisory boards” should be created to ensure basic human rights to those held at immigration detention centers.

The body also recommended that towns set up official hiring sites for day laborers, and that disaster preparedness plans take into account immigrant populations.

AboutDiego Graglia
Diego Graglia is a bilingual multimedia journalist who has worked at major media outlets in the U.S. and Latin America. He is currently the editor-in-chief at Expansion, Meixco’s leading business magazine.