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VOL. 39 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 1, 2015

Students not giving up on tuition equality

By Sam Stockard

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Tennessee students without citizenship say they’ll continue the battle for in-state tuition in 2016 after a measure to help them overcome the financial hurdle of out-of-state tuition barely failed on the House floor.

“It’s hard to believe that we were only one vote away from having tuition equality,” says Cesar Bautista, a La Vergne High graduate who dropped out of Volunteer State Community College because he couldn’t afford out-of-state fees.

“We will continue to organize and campaign for tuition equality so that the Class of 2015 can be the last class to graduate and have to pay three times as much as their peers.

“I want the General Assembly to know that by failing to pass tuition equality, they are not only holding ambitious students like me back, but they voted to hold our whole state back,” Bautista says.

Bautista and advocates say they will build on the bipartisan support that emerged during the session.

But, Republican politicians who supported in-state tuition are already being warned that they may be targeted in upcoming primaries because of their vote.

William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, based in Raleigh, N.C., hailed the failure of the measure, stating, “Strong majorities of American citizens oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants because such legislation forces taxpayers to pay to replace their own children and grandchildren, in the limited seats in our colleges that were built by generations of taxpayers, with illegals.”

Gheen says it’s disappointing to see so many Tennesseans support illegal immigrants ahead of U.S. citizens and noted Republicans who back “tuition benefits for illegals” are vulnerable in primaries where GOP voters oppose such a measure 8-to-1.

In contrast, Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, says House members “failed to lead” in the floor vote, including many who committed their support and faltered at the end.

Says Teatro, “We wish that members of the General Assembly had demonstrated as much courage and leadership as the immigrant students who have fought for this legislation, the same students who are now effectively denied access to an affordable college education for another year.”

Bautista and thousands of other young people moved to the United States and Tennessee with their parents at an early age, went to elementary and middle school here and earned high school diplomas.

But because they don’t hold legal status as citizens, they don’t quality to fill out federal financial aid applications and don’t receive in-state tuition to Tennessee’s public colleges.

State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, overcame several efforts to amend his legislation, but in a 49-47 vote it failed to receive the constitutional majority needed to make it to the governor’s desk.

White’s bill, which was hampered by the absence of two House Democrats that day, returns to the House Calendar & Rules Committee for consideration next session.

It won’t have to go through the Senate again since it passed that body 21-12 this year.

“This is a totally bipartisan bill,” White told House members as the session neared its end. “I don’t bring this before the body lightly. As a conservative Republican, I get where you’re coming from.”

Even state Rep. Rick Womick, a hardline conservative Republican from Rockvale, spoke in support of the measure, pointing out students who came here by “no fault of their own” are required to pay out-of-state rates of nearly $25,000 compared to the in-state rate of $8,084 to attend MTSU.

Under federal law, no avenue exists for these students to seek U.S. citizenship. Rather, a “lawfully present” amendment tacked on SB612/HB675 gave them the momentum they needed to get approval in House committees and the Senate.

Under that policy, a person receiving deferred action from the federal government has approval from the Department of Homeland Security to be in the country, even though they hold no immigration status such a green card or visa.

Tennessee students can apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program in effect since 2012, if they were brought here by their parents and meet certain guidelines:

  • Under 16 when they entered the country.
  • Lived in the United States for five straight years.
  • Graduated from a Tennessee high school, earned a GED or are enrolled in an educational program.
  • Have no criminal record.
  • Got here before June 15, 2007 and were 31 or younger three years ago.

Those approved are authorized to live in the country for two years and obtain a Social Security number and a work permit, enabling them to seek professional licenses, driver’s licenses, bank accounts and credit cards. But they must renew that status every two years.

“Your choice is to let them go to school at the discounted rate or they won’t go to school,” Womick said, pointing out they likely could wind up involved in gangs and drugs or on social welfare.

Alexander

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, countered that, saying the House would be endorsing President Barack Obama’s 2014 amnesty plan for illegal immigrants if it passed the bill.

“The sponsor (White) said the federal government has messed up (immigration policy). I don’t want Tennessee to mess up right behind them,” Alexander said.

Alexander pointed out the state of Tennessee filed suit against the federal government over Obama’s amnesty plan and said the “lawful presence” rule is part of that executive order, even though the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has been in effect since 2012.

He also argued the General Assembly would be going against the state attorney general’s opinion on the president’s executive order for amnesty.

However, Attorney General Herb Slatery determined the in-state tuition bill would not violate federal law forbidding benefits for illegal immigrants.

In spite of a positive fiscal impact for the state caused by more students enrolling in Tennessee universities, Rep. Ryan Williams told House members he feels the General Assembly would be “giving moneys we do not have.”

He noted hundreds of foreign students here on visas are attending Tennessee Tech and not receiving the in-state tuition benefit.

“I just don’t think we should be giving preferential treatment,” Williams, a Cookeville Republican, said.

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

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