published Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Florida tuition bill signals immigration debate shift

Supporters of an immigrant tuition bill react today to passage of the bill in the Florida Senate.
Supporters of an immigrant tuition bill react today to passage of the bill in the Florida Senate.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MIAMI — Florida will allow students in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities, making it the latest of 20 states to enact such a measure.

The final version of the bill passed Friday and highlights a significant shift in the immigration debate at the state level. Advocates in Florida have pushed for in-state tuition for youth whose parents brought them to the country illegally for nearly a decade, to no avail. Just three years ago, the majority of bills proposed by Florida lawmakers and those nationwide focused on enforcement.

Four years ago, many legislatures were considering proposals based on Arizona laws that enabled local law-enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally.

"There was this wave of enforcement-focused legislation," said Ann Morse, who heads up the National Conference of State Legislatures' immigration policy project.

Some states continue to propose enforcement measures, but after the Supreme Court struck down many of Arizona's enforcement measures, and President Barack Obama rolled out his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, most dropped these wide-ranging bills, she said.

"A lot of states decided, maybe we should look at these populations differently. If the federal government was not willing to deport them, maybe we should consider providing driver's licenses and in-state tuition," Morse said.

Renewed activism at the state level in response to congressional gridlock, and the need for both parties to attract Hispanic support in key swing states and beyond have also played a significant role, activists on both sides of the issue say. Republicans in Florida state government know they will increasingly need the Latino vote to stay in office.

At least 15 legislatures have passed in-state tuition bills, a third of them in the past two years, according to Morse's group. Four state university boards of regents have allowed the tuition break. In Virginia, which like Florida is a presidential swing state, activists helped persuade the State Attorney General's Office last month to provide in-state tuition for those covered under the Obama administration's Deferred Action program, known as DACA.

Meanwhile, Washington recently joined several other states in allowing financial aid for some unauthorized immigrants. Washington and Nevada have also reduced penalties for certain misdemeanors to avoid the one-year minimum sentence that can trigger deportation under federal law.

Immigrant advocates in Florida said driver's licenses will be their priority next year. About eight states already provide them to some in the country illegally. Florida this month also passed a bill to make it easier for qualified immigrants in the country illegally to practice law.

Marc Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a significant reduction in immigration, says the federal government and nonprofits such as the American Civil Liberties Union "have made sure it's too expensive to attempt (state enforcement regulation)."

He says state politicians are using mostly symbolic, immigrant-friendly legislation to appease immigrants, while lawmakers in Washington take no action.

But for Oscar Hernandez, 24, the news was more than symbolic.

"I just found out because I had to work," said the Tampa resident and activist. "I'm so excited. Moneywise, I'll probably be saving $25,000 to $30,000."

Hernandez, who came from Zacatecas, Mexico at age 10, has been working full time in construction, taking nursing classes on the side. Now, he will be able to attend the University of South Florida in the fall.

Florida Immigrant Coalition Director Maria Rodriguez says the tenacity of immigrants like Hernandez, who have spent months and years telling their stories, has paid off. But she also acknowledged the politics, especially the about-face of Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is facing a tough re-election fight.

"It's an election year, and this administration has a lot of amends to make with the Latino and immigrant community," Rodriguez said.

Scott, who back in 2011 voiced opposition to a similar tuition proposal, applauded the measure passed Friday, saying it was a "great day for all of our students that want to live the American dream."

"We did the right thing."

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