NJ congressional GOP hopeful adopts Trump’s anti-immigration tone

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Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill Wednesday making New Jersey the tenth state to offer financial aid to undocumented college and university students.
Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com

Jay Webber argues — falsely — that new law benefits immigrants at expense of citizens

Veteran state Assemblyman Jay Webber is now a Republican candidate for Congress in the Age of Trump, which helps explain his attack last week on the first major benefit Gov. Phil Murphy bestowed on immigrants.  

Webber, a conservative Morris County attorney, is unhappy with a law Murphy signed that extends college financial aid to undocumented immigrants who graduated from New Jersey high schools.

Shortly after the bill signing, Webber effectively recycled a familiar, timeworn complaint: Bleeding-heart liberals — this time, Phil Murphy liberals — are giving away taxpayer funds to immigrants at the expense of native-born or naturalized U.S. citizens. And, he asserted, the law confers an advantage on undocumented students that’s denied to veterans.

It’s not simply a giveaway. It’s an unfair “takeaway,” Webber argued in a statement from his legislative office using a sentiment likely to resound in his GOP primary election fight for Congress.

“The Democrats also are taking that financial aid away from New Jersey citizens to give that aid to non-citizens, and our citizens certainly see no fairness in that takeaway,” said Webber, who joined fellow Republicans in voting against the measure in the Assembly.

It’s not only a tired complaint, but a false one. Tuition Aid Grants, the largest financial aid program in question, has always provided aid to everyone who is eligible. The money is awarded based on need. That will not change by allowing young undocumented students to participate.

There will be no dog-eat-dog competition for a limited pie of funding. Under the new law, the pie will simply grow larger. Murphy’s fiscal year 2019 budget includes $4.5 million to cover the immigrant newcomers and maintain the $7,451 average grant for everyone in the program.

“No student who qualified … will be denied the full grant that they would have [received] before the law took effect,” said David Socolow, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which administers the aid program. “We don’t set this up as a competition.”

The new law is expected to add about 750 new recipients to the TAG program, which already provides aid to some 66,000 people. That represents a 1 percent increase.

Socolow also said veterans always been eligible for TAG funding. He said it was “scurrilous and outrageous” to suggest that the new law slammed the door on veteran applicants.

Benefits to ‘undocumenteds’

In a phone interview last Thursday, Webber said it was his understanding that the new undocumented students would be vying for a fixed amount of money.  

But when pressed that this was not the case, Webber argued that that funds should be made available first to U.S. citizens, possibly by helping Pennsylvania students and veterans cover the higher out-of-state tuition charges to attend Rutgers University or the College of New Jersey, for example.

“How about giving a break to an American citizen?” Webber said. “Citizenship means something to many people. It doesn’t mean anything to Phil Murphy.”

But this debate isn’t about facts. It’s about running for Congress as a Republican in the Trump midterm election.

Webber, who served a stint as Republican state chairman, is running for the GOP nomination in the 11th Congressional District, a seat that suddenly became in play after veteran Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen announced that he would not seek re-election.

Frelinghuysen has faced little competition since 1995, when he won his first term in the 11th District, a safe Republican, semi-rural redoubt that stretches across parts of Morris, Passaic, Essex and Sussex counties. But the district has grown increasingly Democratic in recent years. Trump narrowly carried the district by 3,300 votes in 2016. 

And as the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Frelinghuysen was pressured to traffic through Trump policies that were unpopular with the district, such as Trump’s tax overhaul that limited federal deductions on state and local taxes. The leading Democratic nominee is Mikie Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor from Montclair who has proved to be a formidable fundraiser.

But while Trump may be a pariah in a general election, he remains popular with the conservative party base, which holds sway over party primaries. Webber is competing for the GOP nomination against Anthony Ghee, an  Army Reserve judicial officer and Bank of America executive from Passaic County who has never run for elected office, and Peter de Neufville, an executive of a company that supplies chemicals for the semiconductor industry.

Anti-immigrant attacks 

Nor is Webber the only primary candidate raising the anti-immigrant alarm. Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, running for the Republican nomination in the 5th Congressional District, vowed to “stand with President Trump” and embraced Trump’s close-the-border immigration policies in a campaign ad released last week.

Webber, however, dismissed suggestions that his opposition to the bill was an attempt to cozy up to Trump voters. He notes, for example, that he raised essentially the same criticisms in December 2013 when the Legislature debated a bill that allowed undocumented New Jersey students attending state colleges and universities to pay lower, in-state tuition rates.

“Lets be clear: There’s not a person in this chamber who doesn’t want to help the children who were brought here by their parents and who had no choice,” Webber said in the floor debate before the bill was passed. But he added, “This bill would have us subsidize non-citizens to the detriment of citizens, and I don’t agree with that.”

He argues that if anybody is cynically playing to their party’s base, it is Murphy. But in this environment of the Trump midterms, Webber’s criticism puts him comfortably in the “America First” lane of Trumpian hard-liners.

And the looming question is whether that kind of position, which could be an asset in a primary, will become an albatross in a general election. especially amid an anti-Trump backlash brewing in the electorate. 

Webber, known as one of the Legislature’s staunch conservatives long before Trump’s arrival in the Republican Party, will also be making a pitch in a district that traditionally supported the more socially moderate brand of Republicanism of Frelinghuysen or former Govs. Thomas H. Kean and Christie Whitman.

It is a Republicanism that sought to accommodate immigrants, not slam the door in their faces — and especially their kids, educated and groomed side by side with American-born students in public high schools. It’s a taxpayer investment that prepares them for full matriculation into the only economy and country they have ever known.

“We invest in these children in the K-12 system, and when they graduate, many at the top of their class, we can’t turn our backs on them and pretend that they don’t exist,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat.

It’s not that much of a reach to believe that a Kean or Whitman was capable of making the same argument.

Kean skipped the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland, in part over disagreements with Trump’s positions on immigration.

“You need someone who can communicate unity and optimism and show a path for people,” Kean said in an interview with Record columnist Mike Kelly in 2016. “But he added, “I don’t see anybody like that.”

Webber has always stood to the right of Kean Republicanism. But he made it clear last week that he’s standing closer to Trump.

RELATED: Renewed pressure on Murphy to give undocumented immigrants access to NJ driver’s licenses

STATES: Will New Jersey’s Phil Murphy lead Trump resistance now that Schneiderman is out?

WATCH: Congressmen get into shouting match over chaplain on House floor

 

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