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Senate Ques Up Bill Giving In-State Tuition Rates To Undocumented Immigrants

The Florida Senate will weigh in on whether undocumented immigrants can be charged the in-state tuition rate for attending the state’s public colleges and universities.

The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also reduces the state university system governing board’s authority to grant tuition increases above what the legislature approves.  But that’s not the part of the bill getting the most attention.

At the 4th floor rotunda in the state Capitol building Tuesday some 30 people including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Immigrant Coalition lobbied in favor of the bill. Under the proposal students who attend a Florida high school for at least three years before graduating could qualify for the much lower in-state tuition rate regardless of their immigration status.  

“Our only ask is that the invest made in these lives not be squandered and stopped at the road to college, but go on to college and career and making this country a better place every day forward," said Jose Luis Marantes, Director of Service-Learning at the Central Florida immigrant advocacy group, Hope Community Center. He was among those pushing the bill at the Capitol Tuesday.

Several key Senators have been blocking the bill, lowering it’s chances of making it to the Senate floor. The biggest action against the measure came from Senate Appropriations Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who refused to hear the bill at its last stop—his appropriations committee. Efforts to amend the undocumented immigrant language onto other bills a week ago were ruled out-of-order by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher.  Senate President Don Gaetz told students who had lobbied him on the bill, that he would vote against it:

“I’m opposed to the bill, and as the Senator for Northwest Florida I will vote against the bill. I will be fair in applying the Senate rules as I have been- but I will vote against the bill," Gaetz said to the students gathered at his office last week.

Gaetz has maintained that position, but he may be in the minority of Senators who will vote against the proposal. Latvala says he has the necessary 21 votes to secure the proposals passage in the Senate. And he was also able to secure the 27 votes needed to call the bill out of it’s last committee stop and send it to the chamber floor Tuesday, in a very quiet, procedural move led by Senate Rules Chairman  John Thrasher.

Thrasher called up several bills for a hearing, including House Bill 851 which happens to be that chamber's version of Latvala's tuition proposal. The House has already okay’d the bill, and Governor Rick Scott, along with former Governors Jeb Bush, Roberto Martinez and Charlie Crist are also backing the measure.

Still, the debate, even with the Senate’s actions, may be far from over. The issue of whether to allow the children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates has angered those who believe in tougher immigration policies, like Santa Rosa business owner and Northwest Florida Republican Party member James Calkins.

“What this bill does is give illegal immigrants a cheaper tuition rate than my cousin Adam from Arizona. This bill is pure toxic," Calkins said during a committee hearing on the proposal earlier in the month. "It’s an election year and your outright pandering to illegal immigrants is well-known to everyone in the state," he added while lawmakers tried to cut him off.

Governor Rick Scott has been trying to reach out to the state’s Hispanic community to boost his votes, but those efforts are at odds with other republicans like Calkins, who represent a large portion of the Republican party’s base of support. The proposal could be up for consideration by the full Senate as early as Wednesday. If the Senate approves, the measure will go to Governor Scott’s desk.

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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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