Tennessee Sen. Todd Gardenhire is 1-1 on education legislation for immigrants

Tennessee Sen. Todd Gardenhire is 1-1 on education legislation for immigrants

March 25th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Todd Gardenhire

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Sen. Todd Gardenhire's now 1-1 on his two bills delving into the controversial issue of in-state college tuition rates and illegal immigration.

Senators overwhelmingly voted 20-9 Monday night to grant in-state tuition rates to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. The bill now goes to the House.

But the Chattanooga Republican shelved his second, more controversial measure that sought to grant in-state tuition to children who are here illegally but have spent at least five years attending Tennessee schools and graduated high school with a B average.

He said he didn't have enough votes to get that measure through the Senate Education Committee on which he serves.

Happy over passage of the first measure, Gardenhire attributed lack of support in the GOP-controlled Senate on the second bill to "misinformation" peddled by outside groups and his inability to fully educate colleagues.

"I didn't explain it good enough for everybody and educate them," Gardenhire said of the in-state tuition bill for the undocumented children. "I didn't really have time to. Not getting enough votes was my fault and not the fault of the bill and the idea."

He said he hopes to reintroduce the bill next year and make his case this summer and fall "to other senators and the public to where when they hear that outside influence they'll tune it out because they known different."

Providing in-state college tuition to the students, be they U.S.-born or here illegally, makes sense, Gardenhire said, because they're here to stay and statistics show the college-educated immigrants or children of immigrants use far fewer costly government services than those who do not.

Gardenhire said the bill that did pass -- granting in-state tuition to U.S.-born children of undocumented parents -- is necessary because of a 25-year-old state law aimed at students from surrounding states.

It prohibits in-state tuition to students whose parents don't live in Tennessee. That's usually established by where they pay taxes but since in this case the parents are not here legally, there isno federal income tax refer to, he said.

During Senate floor debate Monday night, the bill came under repeated attack by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, who argued that despite having been born in the U.S. themselves, children of illegal immigrants are not American citizens under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.

"You're logic is difficult to follow Sen. Campfield," Gardenhire said at one point.

U.S.-born children are considered citizens, or at least critics were convinced of that at the federal level some years back when they sought to push a constitutional amendment ending it.

Campfield likened the situation to a bank robber providing their proceeds to a child.

Gardenhire said he felt "pretty good" about the bill's strong support.

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition lamented the lack of action on the second bill dealing with undocumented children who've spent at least five years in Tennessee schools and graduating with at least a B average or a having a high school equivalency degree.

Cesar Bautista, a coordinator of TIRRC's campaign for Tuition Equality, said some 14,000 students would have benefited.

"It is unfortunate that the legislature has missed an opportunity to strengthen our state's economy, generate revenue for our universities, and give every student the opportunity to pay their fair share for college," he said in a statement. "When undocumented high school seniors graduate this May, they will have to pay 3 times as much for school, making higher education impossible for most."

"Immigrant youth have advocated for this bill for two years, and we won't quit until every student can pay a fair price for college. Our dreams are what's at stake, and we will never give up," Bautista said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.