An appeal filed with the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court charges that a New Jersey state agency wrongly denied a U.S. citizen college tuition assistance because her mother is undocumented.

The American Civil Liberties Union, and a Rutgers University legal clinic, argue in their appeal on behalf of the student that state's Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, or HESAA, violated the 17-year-old student's constitutional rights when they used her parent's immigration status to deny her a benefit.

"All state budgets are tight, all state agencies are looking for ways to tighten things, but it can't be done in a discriminatory manner," said Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU's New Jersey chapter. "They're in violation of state and federal equal protection clauses. It's a basic American credo, a principle we hold dear, that the sins of the parents cannot be visited upon the children."

The appeal argues that the immigration status of an applicant's parents is not listed as a determining factor in the legislation that created the aid program. 

The student, who is identified in the appeal only as A.Z., has lived in New Jersey for at least a decade and is a graduating senior, applied for a Tuition Aid Grant from HESAA. Her state aid application was rejected, according to the ACLU, with the explanation that "her parents are not legal New Jersey residents."

HESAA representative Marnie Grodman, the acting director of legal matters for the agency, said she could not comment on active litigation or specific student cases. She said the agency requires students — or if they are not yet legally adults, their parents — to prove they have been domiciled in New Jersey for a period of at least a year immediately before the academic period for which they are requesting aid.

Shalom, of the ACLU, said what appears to be at issue in this case — and similar rejections he's seen in recent months — is HESAA's definition of "domiciled."

"HESAA is apparently taking the position that to be domiciled in New Jersey, you must be a legal (U.S.) resident, which is contrary to established New Jersey Supreme Court precedent," he said.

Ronald K. Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic said immigration and legal advocacy groups have seen an uptick in New Jersey of students who are U.S. citizens born to illegal immigrants getting rejected for tuition aid.

"As far as we can tell, it's not an isolated incident or a bureaucratic mistake; it's clearly a policy decision HESAA has decided to take," Chen said. "We respectfully think it's not lawful to discriminate against a U.S. citizen because of their parent's status."

Grodman said HESAA had not changed its policies or reinterpreted its regulations.

Chen said the student at the center of the case was a hardworking senior at the top her class. Both Chen and the ACLU declined to give her hometown or her mother's nationality, saying they wished to protect the family's identity.

Access to education for the American-born children of immigrants — or for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — has been the subject of fierce debate in New Jersey and at the federal and local level nationwide.

Much of the debate has focused on whether undocumented students should be allowed to enroll in higher education or pay in-state tuition rates.

Opponents say allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in college takes seats away from legal residents, usurps scarce taxpayer-funded resources and encourages illegal immigration. Supporters of granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants say those who are brought to the United States as children and grow up in the local school system are faced with few options after graduating high school — regardless of how hard they work.

Several of New Jersey's community colleges, and some private colleges, currently allow illegal immigrants to enroll or don't ask for immigration status on school applications. The County College of Morris, after pressure from the freeholder board and members of the public, recently reversed part of a new policy that allowed undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria to enroll at in-county rates.

State legislation that would have allowed undocumented students who grow up in New Jersey to pay in-state tuition failed to garner enough support for a vote.

In the current case, both Chen and Shalom emphasized that their client is a legal resident, born in the United States, who meets the criteria for state tuition aid.

Even if the HESAA application were to demand the immigration status of the parents as a prerequisite, Shalom said, it would be superseded by federal and state constitutions that forbid discrimination against U.S. citizens because of a parent's status.

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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