Politics

11.19.13

Christie’s Immigration Catch-22: Help Immigrants or Win GOP Primaries

If the New Jersey governor signs a bill providing in-state tuition benefits to children of undocumented immigrants, he’ll anger the very people he needs to win the GOP nomination.

It’s not easy being Chris Christie. And it just got tougher.

Now the New Jersey governor doesn’t just have to deal with Sarah Palin calling his weight “extreme” or Rand Paul calling him a “moderate.” (Remember when being a moderate was a good thing?) Christie’s got a new challenge, one that could have a profound impact on his presidential ambitions: whether to sign into law a measure that will provide in-state tuition benefits to children of undocumented immigrants.

The proposed law, known as the New Jersey Tuition Equality Act, would affect up to 10,000 students, offering them significant savings in tuition costs.  The bill passed the New Jersey Senate on Monday and is expected to sail through the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

If Christie signs the bill into law, he’ll anger the people he needs to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But if he vetoes it, he will likely lose the support of many Hispanic voters—the people he needs to win the general election.

It’s like Sophie’s Choice, except without Meryl Streep or the Nazis. Or maybe it’s more like “Zugzwang”—a word I can barely pronounce—a chess term used when a player has only two possible moves, and both are painful.

What will the governor do? Well, if a speech he gave in 2011 at the Ronald Reagan Library is any indication, he will veto the bill. “I do not believe that for those people who came here illegally that we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money through in-state tuition their education…Let me be very clear from my perspective—that is not a heartless position, that is a commonsense position,” he said then

Christie even publicly criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing similar legislation in Texas.

It looks pretty cut and dried. Based on Christie’s statements in 2011, we can assume he will veto the Tuition Equality Act.

But flash forward two years later. It’s October 2013, and Christie is in the midst of his reelection campaign with an eye toward 2016. He is speaking before the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, thousands of miles from the comfy conservative confines of the Reagan library, and his words are strikingly different: “I believe every child should be given the opportunity to reach their God-given potential. That’s the moral requirement…We need to get to work in the state legislature around things like making sure that there’s tuition equality for everyone in New Jersey.” 

Will he veto it to bolster his conservative credentials? Or will he sign it and let the chips fall where they may?

Wait a second. Isn’t this the blunt-talking Christie, not the typical Etch a Sketch politician who alters his views depending on his audience? Could he be pulling a “full Romney,” or are we just reading too much into Christie’s words at the Latino event?

No, just a few days later at a gubernatorial debate, he reiterated that he now supported the proposed Tuition Equality Act. Christie had flip-flopped on the issue—at least during his 2013 reelection campaign. 

Did Christie’s reversal help him attract Hispanic voters in his reelection bid? In the words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha.” Christie won 51 percent of Hispanic voters, up from the 32 percent he attracted in 2009. And that’s well above the 27 percent of Hispanic voters that Romney attracted in 2012 nationwide. 

So when the Tuition Equality bill is placed on Christie’s desk, what will he do? Will the governor try to find some technicality that will allow him to veto it but claim he still supports the policy in principle? Will he veto it to bolster his conservative credentials? Or will he sign it and let the chips fall where they may?

The right choice for Christie is to sign the Tuition Equality Act. There are numerous reasons to do so, not least the moral aspect Christie articulated at the Latino Leadership Alliance gala. A less squishy reason: People with college degrees have a lower unemployment rate and earn higher incomes than those who didn’t graduate college. So college grads can better support themselves without government assistance and in turn contribute to the tax base. 

Let’s see what Christie chooses. Either way his opponents will use it against him. But at least by signing the Tuition Equality Act, he will know he did the right thing from a public policy point of view, even if it hurts him politically within the Republican Party. But that’s what leadership is all about, and in the long run I believe that’s what voters desperately want in our grotesquely dysfunctional political climate.