NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday that legislative efforts to make children of illegal immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition have "some merit," but he doesn't see including them in his own proposal to offer free tuition to students attending community colleges.
"We're just beginning to dive into and understand the impact, but I think the concept has some merit and we're going to be considering it as it heads down the road," Haslam said of two bills dealing with children of illegal immigrants.
Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, in the Senate. One offers in-state tuition rates to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants who came to the country illegally.
The second offers in-state tuition to children born elsewhere who were brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents but have spent at least five years in Tennessee schools and graduated from high school here.
Both the Republican-controlled House and Senate Education Committees have passed the bill dealing with the U.S.-born children of undocumented workers, who are U.S. citizens.
But the second bill dealing with children who were brought to the U.S. illegally, sponsored in the House by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, was delayed this week in the House Education Subcommittee.
Floyd, a religious and social conservative, said statistics show college-educated immigrants use far fewer government services than those who don't go on to college. The children are in the U.S., he said, and they're not going elsewhere given the federal stalemate on the issue.
Moreover, it's the right thing to do, Floyd said, although he acknowledged he's finding that can be hard.
"Let me tell you something, you think I'm not taking heat back in my community about that? I want to do the right thing," Floyd said, his voice breaking with emotion. "And I'm asking you guys, just do the right thing."
Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, asked for a week's delay to see how the proposed policy interacts with other laws.
Haslam, meanwhile, is proposing creating a nationally first-of-its-kind plan offering free tuition at two-year community colleges to all high school graduates.
The plan would be funded through a combination of interest from state lottery reserves and changes to lottery-funded scholarships at four-year institutions.
Haslam's plan, however, also calls for the students to exhaust other avenues of support by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That requires a Social Security number, which is assigned only to U.S. citizens or others who are in the country legally.
"The issue for us there is the Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, based on filling out the FAFSA form," Haslam said of the problem raised by adopting an approach similar to the Gardenhire/Floyd bill to his own measure.
Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register recently wrote a letter to Haslam urging him to include undocumented students in the plan.
"To fill out the FAFSA form you have to have a Social Security number," Haslam told reporters Wednesday. "That's a problem. I think there are some different ways to address Dr. Register's concern, which is some legislation we're looking into now that is currently being discussed."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.