After Immigrant Tuition Bill Passes Florida House, Fate Uncertain In Senate

Mar 21, 2014

Protesters came out to support the undocumented immigrant tuition bill at the Florida Capitol Thursday.
Credit Stan Jastrzebski / WFSU News

The Florida House and a Senate committee each passed bills this week that would give undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition. It’s been a decade since Democrats started pushing the measure, which two-thirds of the House approved. 

In 2012, Jorge Tume was among Florida’s first undocumented immigrants approved for what’s called “deferred action” status under a presidential executive order. That means he has a driver’s license and can work an office job. But although he’s lived in Florida since he was 7, he pays the higher out-of-state tuition rate to attend Miami-Dade College, where he studies business and film. He says he started saving in high school.

“The way I did it was just to work every day. I actually dedicated myself in washing cars,” he says.

He says he still cleans houses and offices when money gets tight. But a bill now heading to the Senate would give students who’ve been in Florida at least four years the same discounted college tuition as residents with citizenship.

Legislative Democrats have been pushing the idea for the past decade. But the bills moving this year are sponsored by Republicans: Miami Rep. Jeanette Nunez and Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala, who describes himself this way:  “There’s not anybody in this room that feels stronger about securing the borders of our country and keeping people who are not citizens out of our country and using the process that we have in place to become citizens. Nobody here that’s stronger on that than I am.”

He said that to the Senate Education Committee, where the bill eked out a 5-4 victory. Latvala says lawmakers need to face the reality that thousands of undocumented students are living in Florida and paying, at minimum, sales taxes. He points to the example of a young man he met who just finished college. 

“He’s paid his way as far as he can go and is going to graduate school. He’s paid his way. Why penalize these young people for what their parents did 25, 26 years ago?” he asked.

But Rep. John Tobia (R-Melbourne) says, “These kids—or adults; they are adults—are not being punished.”

Tobia was among the 33 Republicans voting no on the bill in the House chamber Thursday.  He says he’s shocked the bill even made it to the floor.

“We do spend tens of thousands of dollars educating them in the K-12 environment. Now we turn around and educate them at the university level and then potentially medical school, and they couldn’t have their residency or practice medicine in the state of Florida,” he says. “To make matters worse, they would have taken the spot of someone who could.”

Tobia points out the state Supreme Court recently ruled an undocumented law school graduate cannot practice law.  Plus, he says, he can’t justify extending the in-state tuition benefit to non-citizens when the children of military service members based in Florida still pay the out-of-state rate.

After Thursday’s House vote, Speaker Will Weatherford said he respects his colleagues’ opinions but supports the bill.

“I think it was a historic victory for the children in this state who are waiting for that opportunity, for that chance to have upward mobility,” he said.

Still, other lawmakers have argued undocumented students have access to college and that should suffice. But future House Democratic leader Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) says that’s not good enough.

“I think when you step in the way of a natural progression of education you’re not helping anybody. I think the more people we can ramp up and allow them to gain knowledge makes Florida better. And I think everybody in every situation in Florida deserves that opportunity. It shouldn’t just be me,” he says, referring to himself as “a white guy.”

Pafford says the House vote was bittersweet because a last-minute amendment extended the time students are required to have lived in the state from three to four years (U.S. citizens get Florida residency after just one year). And he says people who’ve lived here almost their whole lives shouldn’t have to wait any longer.

In Miami, Jorge Tume says even if the bill doesn’t pass, he hopes to use his anticipated degrees to get into filmmaking, so he can turn a camera on people like himself.

“The documentary that I’d like to do is mostly about undocumented students, the struggles that they go through, the obstacles. You know, we break through the obstacles, but they shouldn’t be just because of your legal status,” he says.

Although the House’s passing the bill sends a message to the Senate, its fate in that chamber remains uncertain after the rocky start in its first committee.