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VOL. 39 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 27, 2015

Legislators find reasons to deny in-state tuition

By Sam Stockard

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La Vergne High School graduate Cesar Bautista, who has lived in Tennessee since he was 8 years old, is among a group of students who’ve been here most of their lives but are still forced to pay out-of-state college tuition because they don’t have legal status.

It’s a stumbling block keeping many of them out of college.

“I enrolled in Volunteer State Community College after graduation, but I had to drop out after just a few semesters because my family just couldn’t afford to pay the tuition, which was more than three times as much as my classmates’,” says Bautista, who has been advocating tuition equality for three years.

“If tuition equality passes, I’ll be able to get a degree and pursue my dream of owning my own business.”

Legislation by Sen. Todd Gardenhire allowing students to pay in-state tuition if they’ve attended school in Tennessee for four years passed the Senate Education Committee on a 6-2-1 vote earlier this session. But it ran into an uphill battle to reach the Senate floor.

The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee called for a state attorney general’s opinion on the bill after several senators raised concerns about violating federal law by providing a “benefit” to illegal immigrants.

Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told fellow lawmakers he wants to help 18,000 Latino households in his district, some of which have children who might have come here illegally with their parents but have lived here most of their lives and hope to attend college in Tennessee.

“We’re just giving them opportunity,” Gardenhire says.

In-state tuition and fees for UT-Chattanooga, for example, total $8,138 compared to $24,256 for out-of-state, making it more difficult for these students to enroll there or at any other Tennessee university, Gardenhire points out. Only a small number, fewer than 100, would need this type of help, he adds.

“Anti-immigrant legislators are seeing the political winds shifting in the General Assembly as momentum builds for the in-state tuition bill and are grasping at straws to try to derail the legislation,” says Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

These students would not be eligible for the Tennessee Promise, which is set to provide free tuition and fees for community colleges and colleges of applied technology, according to senators. Nor are they allowed to obtain Pell Grants from the federal government.

That is a sticking point for Sen. Joey Hensley.

“I just think it’s a bad policy allowing students who don’t even quality for the Pell Grant,” the Hohenwald Republican says.

He further contends illegal immigrants should not be receiving any government benefits.

In response, Gardenhire argues, “It behooves us to give the best and the brightest of this category the opportunity.” He reminds senators that illegal immigrants are paying the same taxes as other residents.

But several legislators such as state Sen. Bill Ketron can’t get past immigration at the federal level.

“The heart of the issue for me is what the federal law is,” Ketron says, noting it strictly prohibits benefits for illegal immigrants. “The federal government’s not enforcing it, but it’s still a law.”

Nashville attorney Nathan Ridley, who represents the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, tells senators 19 other states have passed similar legislation.

“The statute does not define in-state tuition as a benefit under the law,” Ridley says.

Ketron says, however, if the Legislature drops out-of-state tuition for this group it should get rid of it for all students.

Part of the bill states the student could file an affidavit with a college or university confirming he or she applied or will apply for legal status.

Ridley points out states eventually could provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who are here illegally, including students who migrated with parents at an early age. No such path is available through federal law, though it is an issue for national debate.

President Barack Obama made an executive order last year shielding about 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation without congressional approval. Twenty-six states have sued the Justice Department to stop the order, which is tied up in a Texas federal court. Meanwhile, Congress is unable to reach agreement on immigration reform.

“The thinking is there will be a path,” Ridley says.

But state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, says, “I’m just a little bit nervous about passing law based on an assumption.” He points out no “qualifier” exists for citizenship eligibility.

State Sen. Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, notes each committee member understands the economic implications of the matter but says, “We do have this conundrum on the federal level.”

Teatro, however, says the bill would set “common sense policy” and allow students to reach their goals, which would bolster Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 goal for education, while generating revenue for state universities and building up the workforce.

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