NASHVILLE - Despite opposition from some members of his own party, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on Wednesday persuaded a key panel to approve his bill allowing U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants living in Tennessee to attend public colleges paying in-state tuition rates.
Among his arguments to reluctant fellow Republicans who dominate Senate Education Committee members?
They need to vote yes from a "pure greed function," Gardenhire explained as he led members through statistics showing college-educated children of illegal immigrant pay far more in taxes than they receive in government benefits.
"These people aren't draining us," Gardenhire said. "It's the other people who are draining us and costing us more money and we need to be a little bit selfish and a little bit greedy about this. And we need ... to solve this problem. This is a problem that's hurting us economically."
Senate Education Committee members approved the bill on a 6-3 vote with three Republicans in the GOP-dominated panel voting no following lengthy debate.
Attacks on the bill came from Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Joe Hensley, R-Howenwald.
Campfield contended the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to American-born children of illegal immigrants.
"I question whether those people are truly citizens," Campfield said.
Rather, he argued, the post-Civil War amendment was intended to apply only to the children of slaves legally brought to the U.S.
Attorneys on the panel as well as committee chairman Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville and Gardenhire disagreed with Gresham arguing "we have knowledge that people who are born in the country are citizens.
Gardenhire said his bill would apply to U.S.-born citizens who have been Tennessee residents for at least a year.
Hensley complained that foreign exchange students who are in the U.S. legally have to pay out-of-state tuition.
The bill ultimately passed 6-3. The House Education Subcommittee also passed the companion measure Wednesday.
Gardenhire said the bill isn't just about Hispanics, telling colleagues a school in the Bradley County portion of his district has many children with Ukranian parents. Afterwards, he told reporters the measure grew out of conversations the conservative lawmaker had with Hispanic church leaders and others in Chattanooga.
In meetings with them, he asked what their No. 1 concern was and they said education and opportunity for their children. Affording a college education was a key concern, he said.
"There's a real effort to get them educated, but then they get to the college level and they're block" because of costs, he said.
Roughly 10 percent of the students in some schools come from families whose parents came to the U.S. illegally, he said.
And Gardenhire noted that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's effort to drive community college and university graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 may well hinge on getting immigrants residing in Tennessee to college.
While the bill which began moving in committees Wednesday is hard for some Republicans to swallow, Gardenhire and Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, have another bill already drawing more fire.
It would enable children brought to the U.S. illegally to get in-state tuition rates if they have resided in the U.S. and Tennessee for at least five years and have high grades upon graduation from high school.
Gardenhire said he's still working on garnering support for the second measure.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.