An ‘epiphany’ for legislators on in-state tuition

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16

Tina Sharma grew up in Tennessee, graduated from Martin Luther King High School in Nashville and enrolled at Belmont University. She calls the Volunteer State home.

But Tennessee doesn’t exactly return that love to Sharma and thousands of other students whose parents entered the United States illegally years ago when they were small children.

Instead, it requires them to pay out-of-state tuition at the state’s public colleges, a serious hurdle since the cost is usually three times higher than for in-state tuition. At Middle Tennessee State University, for example, tuition for fall 2014 and spring 2015 is $8,084 for in-state students and $24,876 for out-of-state students.

Sharma, who will graduate from Belmont this spring, won’t benefit from legislation designed to give undocumented immigrant students equal footing for in-state tuition. Yet she feels so strongly about the matter she’s lobbying Tennessee’s lawmakers and helped earn a victory this session when the measure passed in a House Education Committee.

"Just to have my friends and peers be able to enjoy it will be a great accomplishment," says Sharma, who, at 13, came with her family to the United States from India as a dependent under her father's business visa. She lost her legal status when her father's visa expired.

She moved to Nashville 13 years ago.

Kingston Republican Rep. Kent Calfee told committee members he’d been prepared to vote against the bill but had an “epiphany” in realizing the students came here at no fault of their own.

Likewise, Republican Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale apparently changed his mind after hearing testimony from an undocumented student who moved to Nashville with her parents when she was only 5.

As legislators emerged from the committee room that day, a group of students flocked around Womick to thank him for his vote. He encouraged them to finish their degrees and continue seeking citizenship.

“What you’re doing, working real hard to become citizens instead of being contributors, that makes all the difference in the world,” Womick tells them.

“That turned the tide, so keep it up. And I will be pushing this bill to try to make sure all my colleagues understand exactly how good a bill it is and vote for this.”

Womick adds, “Go to college and get your degree, whether it’s a junior college, a four-year college or whether it’s a tech school. Don’t stop.”

Turning the tide

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 the House committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

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 guidelines:

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

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

Support by conservative lawmakers such as Womick helps the cause, says Eben Cathey, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“Everybody is seeing the value of passing tuition equality,” Cathey says.

The group points out the bill meshes with Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive for 55 initiative for a majority of Tennessee adults to hold a degree or certificate within 20 years. The bill also has a positive impact on the state’s budget.

As originally filed, the legislation would have made it possible for 25,000 immigrant students to pay in-state tuition.

An estimated 11,000 student are eligible to apply for “lawfully present” status, and 7,000 of those have received approval. About 8,000 more will be eligible to apply when they turn 15.

A pending lawsuit over President Barack Obama’s executive order to give 5 million illegal immigrants relief from deportation won’t have any effect on the Tennessee bill. It took effect three years ago and is not part of the legal action.

Pros and cons

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an opinion earlier this session giving the bill the legal green light after members of the Senate Finance Committee questioned whether it would provide a “benefit” to illegal immigrants.

State Sen. Bill Ketron was among those who questioned its legality, and even with the “lawfully present” amendment attached, he voted against it in committee.

“I just still have an issue about coming here illegally,” Ketron says. “That’s an issue that needs to be fixed. I know our immigration laws are broken, but I’m holding out for the next president that comes in and might be able to fix it.”

The Murfreesboro Republican says he heard Republican presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin speak recently at the National Rifle Convention, and noted “he made the commitment that he’s gonna fix it, first by securing the border.”

Ketron adds he understands students in this situation didn’t come here on their own volition and feels “sorry” for them.

“But it’s awful hard for me, as I talked about in committee, to say that some kid who lives in Huntsville, comes across the line and wants to go to Motlow State, he has to pay out-of-state tuition versus somebody who comes here across the U.S. border and they get in-state tuition. That’s just difficult for me to understand that,” he says.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, however, is leaning toward it because of the “lawfully present” amendment. Initially, he calls it a “tough” issue because even though the students came here with their parents he doesn’t want to “encourage illegal behavior.”

“So I do think with that amendment that I can vote for it,” he says. “Before that amendment went on, I wasn’t real sure about it. But right now, I’d be a 75 percent yes after the amendment went on.”

Gov. Bill Haslam reportedly says the bill has “merit.”

Neither of those sound like a sure thing, but for those students who can’t afford to pay the high cost of out-of-state tuition, it’s a move in the right direction.

State Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican sponsoring the measure, says it makes sense for Tennessee’s long-term health. He points out Davidson, Robertson and Williamson counties will grow by a million people during the next quarter-century and 34 percent of those will be Hispanic.

“This is something to protect the future growth of Tennessee. These young people are here and we need to let them go on and take the barriers out of their way,” White says.

Those words give Sharma and peers encouragement they might have lacked early this session.

“We’ve been working on it for such a long time that it finally feels like it’s going to happen, and it’s so exciting to know all the good stories that are going to come out and all the support that’s coming out,” she says.

Sam Stockard can be reached at