In-state tuition bill for undocumented students clears first Tennessee House panel speed bump

In-state tuition bill for undocumented students clears first Tennessee House panel speed bump

March 13th, 2018 by Andy Sher in Breaking News

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, right, listens to Sen. Bo Watson Tuesday, January 5, 2016 at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

This story was updated March 13, 2018, at 11:50 p.m. with more information.

NASHVILLE — A bill that allows some undocumented students living in Tennessee to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities moved in a House panel Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, passed the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee on a voice vote with one member objecting.

But it's unclear how the measure, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, will do in the full committee where it failed last year.

In the past, the bill was tied to students' participation in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed them to remain in the U.S.

But with the program's status in upheaval at the federal level, this year's version grants in-state tuition to all students who spent at least three years in a Tennessee high school immediately prior to graduation or else graduated from a state high school, obtained a GED here or completed high school in a Tennessee home school program.

Proponents say the bill will benefit students whose parents illegally brought them to the U.S., arguing the students shouldn't be punished, aren't leaving any time soon, and will benefit from higher education in terms of better jobs and pay. Gardenhire says that makes them far less prone to be reliant on taxpayer services.

The undocumented students living here currently pay out-of-state tuition rates, which can be triple the in-state rate.

Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, appeared to be the lone no vote on the House subcommittee's voice vote. White said she opposed taxpayer dollars "going to provide subsidies for those who are illegal in our country. I support President Trump's initiative to end illegal immigration."

Later, Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, praised the panel's action.

"Today, immigrant youth from across Tennessee powerfully launched our campaign to pass the Tuition Opportunity bill and reminded legislators how much is at stake," Teatro said. "We are encouraged by today's vote and hope the legislature will move quickly to pass this bill and allow the thousands of students graduating from high school this spring the chance to follow their dreams."

In 2015, Gardenhire got the bill through the full Senate, only to see it fail by a single vote in the House.

Earlier between 120 and 150 young Tennesseans stood on the state Capitol steps with Gardenhire, White and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who is backing their legislation.

Among them was Alondra Gomez of Chattanooga, who later said, "My younger brother is one of the thousands of undocumented youth in Tennessee who are excelling in the public education system. However, as his graduation approaches, he continues to find himself financially barred from a degree that would allow him to give back to the Chattanooga community that raised him."

Gomez said that "for the betterment of our state, elected officials should be making it easier for undocumented students to access a post-secondary education, not further enforcing the barriers that keep our communities from thriving."

Haslam offered words of encouragement to the group, explained a little bit about the political process, and told the students "being here matters and we appreciate it very much."

"For me, it's an issue of folks who've finished at least three years of high school in Tennessee, have a degree or a GED certificate, want to become a citizen, have agreed to apply and have made that commitment to be here and be a part of our community," the Republican governor said.

Haslam said Tennessee's challenge right now "is having enough trained work force. Period. We have a lot of folks who want to get that further education here. It's difficult when [they say] I can't get in-state tuition."

He added that he and others are "trying to see where we stand, if there's a path forward, and I've told the representative and the senator if I can help in any way making calls."

Asked about the current situation in Washington, Gardenhire said Trump offered "to more than double the number of Dreamers [DACA enrollees] he wants to give access to. So I thought that was very positive."

He noted he challenged the state's two Democratic congressmen to back Trump but heard nothing back.

Trump has tied extension and expansion of the DACA program to his stated goal of building a wall on the U.S.'s southern border with Mexico. The president also wants to end "chain migration," a product of the current family visa system that allows immigrants already here legally to bring some family members to the U.S.

Democrats have opposed both of those.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.