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Victory! New Jersey Cannot Discriminate Against Students who are Children of Immigrants

Alexander Shalom,
ACLU of New Jersey
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August 10, 2012

Before opening the envelope, A.Z. was a typical all American, high achieving high school senior, getting ready for college. But after she read the letter inside, A. Z. felt like a second-class citizen watching her dreams of college crumble.

That letter changed her life. Despite the fact that she was born in New York and had been a Jersey girl since the age of four, the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) told her that she did not qualify for the financial aid she applied for. The reason? “Your parents are not legal New Jersey residents.” Although she appealed, the response essentially said the same thing: because your mother is not a legal resident, we will treat you like you have lived in Guatemala for the past 14 years, even though you actually lived in New Jersey the entire time.

The Authority’s reasoning didn’t just defy logic, it defied the law. New Jersey promises aid to any college bound U.S. citizen who demonstrates two things: financial need and New Jersey residency. The immigration status of a parent is irrelevant. So, even though state law clearly defines “residency” as the location where the student actually lives, A.Z. couldn’t force HESAA to change its erroneous interpretation of the law. For that, she sought help from the ACLU of New Jersey.

HESAA began denying students the aid they deserved based on their parents’ immigration status in 2005. In the past seven years, how many hundreds or even thousands of American citizens from New Jersey have seen their horizons wrongfully narrow before their eyes?

More than a year after HESAA’s letter cast a pall over all of A.Z.’s acceptance letters, a New Jersey appellate court issued its decision: HESAA can discriminate no longer. The authority in charge of distributing need based Tuition Aid Grants must follow the law that exists, not misinterpret the law in an attempt to change its meaning.

But the news for A.Z. is bittersweet. On the one hand, she feels vindicated, finally getting justice. On the other, a positive court ruling doesn’t come close to a reset button. Without aid to help her, she had to work a full-time retail job while taking a full course load at community college. She could only afford a school without her desired major – journalism. Every day she would wake up at 6 a.m. to squeeze in school, work and homework. She would get home after 11 p.m. each night, go to sleep, and repeat it all again the next day. In the span of a year, a young woman whose life had previously embodied the American dream saw her own dreams pulled away by discrimination.

This court ruling turns the page for a fresh new cohort, and hopefully students whose aid applications were denied will receive letters soon, informing them of the state’s error and promising the aid to which the law entitles them. Students like A.Z. who have been affected by these discriminatory practices must continue to pursue their aspirations and build bright futures, despite these unfair setbacks.

This ruling sends a clear message to government agencies in New Jersey and beyond: You have a duty to interpret the laws protecting people’s rights as they exist, not as you wish they had been written.
In this video, A.Z. tells her story in her own words:

A Student’s Right to Financial Aid

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