Updated 1:41 p.m. ET, 1/7/2014
Union City, New Jersey (CNN) – Flanked by Hispanic leaders, students, and immigration reform advocates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrated the signing of his state's so-called DREAM Act on Tuesday, hailing the new law a sound economic choice and an object lesson in bipartisan cooperation.
"We know that when we bring people together, when we work together despite some of our differences, that we also set an example of optimism for every one of the 8.9 million people who live here," Christie said at a signing event in Union City, a Hispanic stronghold just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
"Unlike what happens in Washington, that government can actually work for you," he added. "That things can actually get done, that agreements can be reached, and that commitments can be kept."
The bill grants in-state college tuition rates to undocumented high school graduates who attended a New Jersey high school for at least three years.
To the dismay of Democrats and some reform advocates who had lobbied for a more expansive bill, Christie vetoed a measure that would allow students to be eligible for New Jersey financial aid packages.
The mood inside the elementary school auditorium that housed the event at was nevertheless triumphant, as a handful of speakers praised Christie and beseeched young immigrants to take advantage of the academic opportunity afforded to them under the law.
"Our job, I believe, as a government, is to give every one of these children who we have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in, an opportunity to maximize the investment for their benefit, for the benefit of their families, for the benefit of our state and the country," Christie said.
"Even if you're cold-hearted about this, you can agree with the common sense of the economics: An investment made should be an investment maximized," he said.
Christie privately signed the bill in late December so it would take hold in time for the Spring 2014 semester. In-state tuition at some New Jersey colleges and universities is as much as $15,000 cheaper than the out-of-state cost. Aides said he decided to arrange a public ceremonial signing this week to honor the range of advocates, legislators and Hispanic leaders who had pressed for the new law.
Christie opposed the legislation until last year on the grounds that the state could not afford the tuition breaks, but he changed his position at the height of his re-election campaign, saying that the state's economic outlook had improved, a move that his critics called a cynical ploy to appeal to the state's Hispanic community.
Christie aggressively courted Hispanic voters throughout his race with targeted voter outreach and over $1 million on Spanish-language television and radio ads. He eventually won re-election by capturing a majority of Hispanic voters, a resonant talking point for Christie as Republicans try to burnish their dreary reputation among Spanish-speakers, the country's fastest-growing voting bloc.
In laying the groundwork for an increasingly likely presidential campaign in 2016, Christie has been framing himself as a Republican with wide-reaching national appeal, willing to work with Democrats in Trenton, and tangle with some of his party's more conservative voices, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other self-styled tea party leaders.
"We live in a world where people believe compromise is a dirty word," Christie said. "We all have principles that we want to stand up and fight for. But then I believe the obligation of anyone who is the governor of a state, or those members of the legislature elected by their constituents, they have an obligation to sit in a room around the table and advance the interests of the people who gave them these jobs in the first place."
The decision to hold Tuesday's event in Union City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, was freighted with finely-tuned political symbolism: The city's mayor, a Democrat, endorsed the governor's re-election bid last year. Union City is more than 80% Hispanic and voted overwhelming for President Obama in 2012, but Christie carried the city last November over his Democratic opponent, little known state lawmaker Barbara Buono.
The governor chuckled when Martin Perez, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, a coalition of Latino community leaders from around the state, mistakenly introduced him Christie as "the governor of Puerto Rico." Perez said he had pressed three successive administrations to pass the tuition bill, but his advocacy fell on deaf ears.
"Finally we have governor who made a commitment to us," he said. "The good thing about this governor is that when he makes his commitment, you have to understand that he will deliver the goods."
Christie applauded when Perez called on the United States Congress to "follow the example of New Jersey" and pass immigration reform this year. A comprehensive bipartisan immigration overhaul passed the Democratic controlled Senate last summer but ran into a brick wall in the GOP-run House, though Speaker John Boehner has signaled that he may try to pass a series of smaller-scale reform bills.
Christie's decision to extend financial assistance to undocumented immigrants could be met with hostility by conservative activists in the primary and caucus states that shape the Republican presidential nominating process. During the Republican primary fight of 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support cratered when he forcefully defended his own state's version of the DREAM Act and suggested that critics of that bipartisan tuition bill did not "have a heart."
There is evidence to suggest, however, that early state Republicans are not as opposed to immigration reform as conventional wisdom suggests. In December 2011, in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, a New York Times/CBS News poll, only a fraction of Iowa Republicans ranked illegal immigration as the issue most important factoring into their vote.
Meanwhile, a full 62% of Iowa Republicans said they would be willing to back a candidate who did not share their views on immigration. Perry and Newt Gingrich, each of whom staked out more moderate positions on the issue during their campaigns, earned more support on the issue in Iowa than eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who took a harder-line on immigration and went on to lose the national Hispanic vote badly to President Obama.