An immigrant from Ecuador, now living in the U.S. for 12 years, looks towards the Statue of Liberty while participating in a 'Time is Now' rally for immigration reform on April 6, 2013 in Jersey City, New Jersey. John Moore/Getty
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Friday signed a bill passed by the state legislature that would allow undocumented immigrant students living in the state to pay lower in-state college tuition.
The move makes New Jersey the 16th U.S. state to allow students without legal immigration status to pay in-state rates, and comes after lengthy political wrangling between the Republican governor and Democrats in the state legislature.
"The most important thing is for these young men and women of our state, who we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their K-12 education, we're now going to give them an opportunity in an affordable way to be able to continue their education," Christie said in Trenton on Thursday.
"This will be once again an example of New Jersey showing how you can come to bipartisan agreement," said Christie, who is widely expected to seek the Republican nomination for the White House in 2016.
The tuition bill applies to students who have attended at least three years of high school in New Jersey. Until now, foreign-born college students who are not citizens have paid the more expensive out-of-state tuition rate.
The difference is significant. At Rutgers, the state's flagship public university, the in-state tuition is $10,700 annually — $14,000 less than the out-of-state cost. Full-time students also pay nearly $3,000 in fees, and room and board are extra.
At least a dozen states have similar laws, including Texas and California, the two states with larger foreign-born populations than New Jersey.
Christie vetoed a previous version of the bill that would have allowed some undocumented immigrant students to qualify for financial aid, the New York Times reported.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, 15 U.S. states have laws permitting some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition if they have attended and graduated from primary or secondary schools there. Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington, according to the center.
Christie's announcement comes as numbers released Thurday by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security, showed the fewest number of immigrants deported since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Between October 2012 and September 2013, federal immigration authorities removed 368,644 immigrants from the country, compared to about 409,000 for the same period between 2011 and 2012. ICE has removed more than 1.9 million immigrants since 2009.
Immigration advocacy groups were encouraged by the reduced number of deportations, as ICE focuses its resources on deporting undocumented criminals.
“But ICE is still removing people with no criminal record who are just trying to build a life in America — including tens of thousands this past year," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said in a statement. "These numbers highlight the urgency for broad immigration reform from Congress that stresses accountability and moves our country forward."
President Obama’s tenure has brought higher deportation rates than any presidency in history, according to immigration advocates.
Mexico, with 241,493 removals, Guatemala, with 47,769, Honduras, with 37,049 and El Salvador, with 21,602 were the countries of origin for most immigrants sent back.
ICE Acting Director John Sandweg says 235,093 of those immigrants were arrested at or near the U.S. border with Mexico. Sandweg says significant increases in the numbers of Central Americans arrested along the Mexican border led to the drop in deportations this year. He said those deportation cases take more time.
ICE’s data showed a sharp 27 percent increase over 2012 in the number of people from countries other than Mexico. Since it’s more complicated to send immigrants over multiple international borders, more immigrants are spending time in detention facilities.
The Border Patrol, meanwhile, made more than 409,000 arrests at the border during the 2013 budget year that ended in September.
Al Jazeera and wire services