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Governors, Hispanic Groups Urge Senate To Take Up Immigrant Tuition Bill

Florida Senate
Florida Senate

Florida Governor Rick Scott and most of the state former governors are joining a growing call of people backing a proposal to give the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. The plan is on life support after a powerful committee chairman says he won’t hear the bill.

For more than a decade, proposals allowing undocumented students who are Florida residents in-state tuition has been tried, and failed in the legislature. But this year, it appeared the trend would change, with the House passing the bill in the early days of the session—followed by successive committee hearings in the Senate.

“I believe every now and then, we need to put politics aside and do what’s right for our state’s future," said Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) the Senate sponsor of the bill, earlier this month.

The proposal had been gaining support in the Senate and Latvala has said he has the votes to get the bill approved if it makes it to the chamber floor. Now,  it may not get that chance.

Thursday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron announced he would not give the bill a hearing at its last committee stop—his Senate Appropriations Committee. The move severely damages the proposals chances of getting through the legislature this year. It's a decision that has angered many of the bill's backers.

“It’s treating these individuals as second class citizens and considering the racial makeup of these students which happens to be black-and-brown, it definitely has a racially-tinged sentiment to it," says Avinash Ramanathan, a sophomore political science student at Florida State University and member of the group, Students for a Democratic Society.

The organization sent sent out a strongly worded statement blasting Negron’s, "racist decision to keep the bill off the Senate Appropriations Committee agenda, despite the bipartisan support in the state legislature, including passing the bill in a floor vote in the state House of Representatives and Governor Rick Scott’s public endorsement of the bill."

While the proposal had been gaining momentum in the legislature, it has also generated strong backlash. During a Senate Judiciary hearing earlier this month one of the public speakers, George Fuller, angered several lawmakers with his remarks against the proposal.

"They should return home and finish their education and help build a vibrant economy so their major exports are no longer drugs and people," Fuller told the committee. Those statements angered several members of the committee including Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate). 

"Mr. Chair, we can’t continue like that. We’re a senate hearing—please, take control,” Ring said in response to Fuller's remarks.

In statement on why he pulled the proposal from consideration, Negron says he believes in-state tuition should be reserved for legal residents of Florida, and notes there is nothing in state law prohibiting undocumented students from attending colleges and universities. Negron also notes some institutions are already waiving out-of-state fees for undocumented immigrants. But that is not a good enough reason for denying a bill a hearing says Florida Immigrant Coalition spokesman Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez:

“It’s extremely disappointing, it’s infuriating, and I think it’s a bad political move for Senator Negron to do this and I think he’s definitely going to be hearing from his constituents. But the point is, this this issue is beyond Negron.” 

Supporters of the measure plan to rally at the Capital Monday to urge Senate President Don Gaetz to pull the bill out of the appropriations committee and give it a hearing on the chamber floor. Gaetz has said he is personally opposed to the measure, but has also said he wouldn’t block it if it cleared the committee process.

But if Negron’s decision stands, the issue may be dead for the year.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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