December 5, 2013

LET IT be recorded for posterity: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s support for granting “tuition equality” to the state’s undocumented immigrants spanned precisely 44 days. His support for the idea was born Oct. 12 and lasted through his Nov. 5 reelection victory, when he managed to win just more than half the Hispanic vote. It died abruptly on Nov. 25, as Mr. Christie pivoted from New Jersey’s general election to his preparations for the 2016 Republican primaries. On to Iowa!

The governor’s 44 days of enlightenment encapsulates perfectly his party’s dilemma on the issue of illegal immigration. At least in the view of Republican candidates, any effort to court Hispanics, a vital and growing segment of the electorate, risks infuriating GOP primary voters.

Mr. Christie’s flip-flop has been accompanied by some artful squirming. When he first shifted his long-standing opposition to helping undocumented youngsters afford a college education if they were educated in New Jersey schools, he said he wanted to ensure “there’s tuition equality for everybody in New Jersey.”

Now he says a bill passed by the state Senate that would do just that — the very same bill that was pending when he embraced tuition equality in October — is a legislative overreach and “unsignable.”

His objections include that it would make undocumented immigrants eligible not just for in-state tuition but also for state financial aid and that out-of-state students attending New Jersey boarding schools would also qualify for in-state tuition if they attended college in New Jersey. (This would apply to a minuscule number.)

Of course, Mr. Christie could have made those objections known in October. At the time, he expressed no reservations in backing tuition equality. Now it turns out that “equality,” to Mr. Christie, doesn’t really mean that undocumented immigrants be treated equally.

Mr. Christie said, “I don’t think this is any different position than I’ve had all along.” In fact, he has discovered reasons to oppose an idea that he embraced just weeks ago. We hope he’s artful enough to flip back one more time. It might help his credibility. It certainly would be the right thing for young people in New Jersey who want to contribute to what is, for most of them, the only country they have ever known.