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VOL. 41 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 07, 2017

Bill to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students fails

By Sam Stockard

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Karla Meza dreams of enrolling in the University of Tennessee Law School after growing up in Knoxville and watching college students walk along Cumberland Avenue.

But that dream is on hold after a House Education committee refused Tuesday to allow all students, including illegal immigrants, who graduate from Tennessee high schools to pay in-state tuition at school colleges.

As an immigrant student who came here illegally with her parents at age 3, Karla is required to pay out-of-state tuition, which is typically at least double the in-state fee, and she can’t even afford to finish her degree at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, much less think about applying for UT-Knoxville and its law school. In-state tuition and fees for UT-K are $19,307 and $376,982 for out-of-state.

With only a few classes needed to complete her associate’s degree, she had to drop out and start working in cellular phone sales to save up enough money to go back to school.

“It’s pretty disappointing considering the facts,” Meza, 21, a Knoxville Powell High graduate, said after a 7-6 voted in the committee defeated the legislation. “I’m gonna keep trying. I’m not gonna let it stop me, and I don’t think it should stop anybody else.”

State Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who is stepping outside his party’s platform to sponsor the legislation, was clearly disappointed with the outcome after telling committee members, “I believe when you kill hope in a person you kill a person’s future.”

White contends he is dealing with a problem created by the federal government’s inability to cope with illegal immigration and the results of young people coming here with their parents at no fault of their own.

About 13,000 Tennessee students under age 18 could benefit from the legislation, but White said the number could be as high as 25,000, including students such as Meza.

White nearly passed the measure two years ago in the full House and says he’s likely to bring it back next year in another form. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, has cleared that body’s committee system with relative ease this year.

Too many legislators are getting “hung up” on immigration law and failing to look at the matter from a different angle, White said.

“A lot of times the law walks over people. So sometimes you need to change the law with compassion to say if you want to make a better life, you can make a better life,” White said.

“It’s hard for people of this generation to get past the legal question, and I understand that. But that is not the issue here, and that’s what I’m trying to convince people. We’re talking about individuals that want to better their life, and they were babies when they came here. How can you deny them that?”

White points out the state is not subsidizing these students’ education because of changes in the funding formula for higher education.

Memphis Democratic Reps. Johnnie Turner and John DeBerry spoke in favor of the bill Tuesday, with Turner saying she understands how the group of students, largely Hispanic, feel because she faced the same type of obstacles as a black student in the late 1950s using inferior materials.

“Drive to 55 didn’t say we were going to discriminate against anybody,” Turner said, referring to the governor’s effort for 55 percent of Tennesseans to hold certifications or college degrees by 2025.

DeBerry urged committee members to look at the matter from a business standpoint rather than with emotion.

“We have made an investment in these young people because we’ve allowed them to stay,” DeBerry said. He argued it makes no sense to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send them through the 12th grade and then abandon them.

Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, tried to tell the committee about a visit she made to a high school in her district with a large number of immigrant students. But she became so emotional she couldn’t finish speaking.

Yet committee members such as Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, argued that allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition would lead to higher property taxes across Tennessee.

“We’re gonna become a magnet in the Southeast (for illegal immigrant students) if we pass this legislation,” White said.

Rutherford County is building a school a year already, she said, and passing such a bill would bring large numbers of immigrant students, increasing enrollment and forcing the county to raise taxes to pay for more schools. She argued Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama laws block this.

White, however, said 20 other states have passed laws enabling illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition.

“Are we here just to get re-elected?” White asked the committee.

The vote came just a day after a group of conservative Republicans gathered in front of the House chamber to oppose White’s legislation.

Rep. Judd Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican, said these immigrant students should go through the “arduous” process of becoming citizens before they can benefit from in-state tuition, even if it means being unable to afford college.

“We weren’t elected to come up here and compromise on this issue. We were elected to come up here and say no benefits to illegal immigrants,” Matheny said.

Despite those attitudes, Knoxville’s Meza told the committee, “We’re all here to fight for our futures to better our state, to better our lives.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.