A group of Rutgers University students repeatedly interrupted a speech by the school president today as they sought lower tuition for illegal immigrants at New Jersey colleges.
Rutgers President Richard McCormick was forced by students to stop four times during his 32-minute State of the University speech at the student center in New Brunswick.
The students shouted questions about the university’s policy of charging out-of-state tuition to illegal immigrants who grew up in New Jersey. They asked the president to commit to changing the rule.
When McCormick politely declined to respond for a fourth time and continued his speech, about 50 students rose in unison and silently walked out of the hall with their fists raised in the air. Some wrapped their hands in red Rutgers T-shirts.
“The university for the last year and a half has been giving us the runaround,” said Braulio Salas, a senior political science major and co-chair of the Latino Student Council at Rutgers. “If he’s not going to listen to us, we’re going to make him listen to us.”
After his speech, McCormick told the approximately 500 students, professors, alumni and staff members in the audience he was sympathetic to the cause of students who had entered the country illegally as children.
Under state law, Rutgers must charge them out-of-state tuition even if they graduated from New Jersey high schools.
“It is not within our power … to solve that problem,” McCormick said. “It will have to be solved in the context of the government of New Jersey and of the nation.”
Earlier this year, the state Legislature failed to pass legislation that would have allowed local colleges to charge in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who attended New Jersey high schools. Similar federal legislation — called the DREAM Act — is being debated in Washington, D.C.
McCormick said Rutgers supports the federal legislation. But the student protesters said they want Rutgers to take a stand, change its policy now and allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.
Rutgers charges in-state undergraduates $12,560 per year in tuition and fees. Out-of-state students pay $24,316. Illegal immigrants are also barred from getting state financial aid, making it impossible for many to cover their tuition bills.
Rutgers does not ask applicants their immigration status during the admissions process. It requires students to prove only that they are legal residents when they pay their in-state tuition bills. Campus officials said it is unknown how many illegal immigrants are attending the 54,600-student university paying out-of-state tuition.
Reyna Martinez, a senior who co-chairs the Latino Student Council, said there are many illegal immigrants at Rutgers and many more who can’t afford to attend because of the tuition policy. Martinez said she and other students who are in the country legally spoke at the meeting on behalf of the illegal students who were afraid to give their names.
“I think we’ve caught some attention. McCormick now knows there is a problem. Maybe he will meet with us,” said Martinez, 21, of Paterson.
Despite the interruptions, McCormick completed his annual speech, which focused on how Rutgers is dealing with cuts in state funding. The president unveiled plans to launch a $1 billion fundraising campaign, starting with a gala next month in Newark.
McCormick also outlined cost-saving measures, including a new internet-based phone system to be phased in on the New Brunswick campus starting next month. The system is expected to save $1.4 million.
“All across our campuses there are additional examples of savings and cost efficiencies. And, I implore you, there need to be many more,” McCormick said.