Gardenhire's education bill the right way to bite the immigration apple

Gardenhire's education bill the right way to bite the immigration apple

February 14th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Sen. Todd Gardenhire R-Chattanooga

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire is not suggesting we eat the entire immigration apple in one bite in order to do what's right for Tennessee children born in the United States to parents who are illegal immigrants.

The entire apple -- allowing illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens (with, pick your various restrictions) -- is much, much harder to swallow.

But Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, got the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday to approve his bill that would allow U.S. born children of illegal immigrants living in Tennessee to attend public college on in-state tuition.

The bill, which would apply to state residents of at least a year, was approved 6-3.

The House Education Subcommittee also passed a companion measure on Wednesday.

"Our national leaders have really dropped the ball on [immigration]," Gardenhire said he told the committee. "We're not getting this solved. We need to pick something and solve it. We're not getting into the national issues. But here's something we can" do that makes economic sense.

He's right.

If these students, who are already U.S. citizens (despite some apparent misunderstanding of that by some of the senator's colleagues on the panel), get a college education, they have opportunities to get better jobs and to have a bigger hand in making the state's economic wheels turn.

In addition to the plan being crucial to Gov. Bill Haslam's effort to increase community college and university graduation from 32 to 55 percent by 2025, Gardenhire said it's just the right thing to do. After all, illegal immigrant parents, like all of us, just want their children to get ahead.

The idea for the legislation came following meetings Gardenhire had with the likes of Bradley County teachers, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith and Hispanic leaders.

Of the latter gatherings and the things they sought, Gardenhire said, "none were out of the ordinary." Their No. 1 concern was education and opportunities for their children, with affording a college education as the key.

"There's a real effort to get them educated, but then they get to the college level and they're blocked" because of costs, he said.

In-state tuition at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for the 2013-14 academic year is $6,065. Out of state tuition is $21,272.

For many of the students, the tuition break would be the difference between going to college and not going to college. Out-of-state tuition would be just another barrier, so higher institutions would never have seen a dime out of those students anyway.

Gardenhire said Thursday he used statistics to explain to the panel that college-educated children of illegal immigrants pay far more in taxes than they receive in government benefits -- at least $140,000 more. The statistical drag on government benefits, he said, are those students of any race who drop out of high school.

"Doggone it, it just makes sense for us to get as many people educated as we can," he said. "I wanted to take the sting out of the [illegal immigrants] argument and appeal to the greed factor."

Gardenhire's bill must still go through various committees before going to the floor, but he believes it will pass the full Senate.

"I think it'll make it," he said. "I feel fairly confident" it will pass by about "the same percentage" (a two-thirds majority) as in the committee.

Gardenhire and Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, even want to take the education initiatives a step further.

A second bill, delayed to clean up some language, would enable children brought to the U.S. illegally to get in-state tuition if they have resided in the U.S. and Tennessee for at least five years and have high grades upon graduation from high school.

Those students would have to jump over the same basic hurdles as those who earn a Hope Scholarship and keep similar standards to retain their in-state tuition, Gardenhire said.

"It would show they're serious students," he said. "It puts the onus on them."

If Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress could work together in this same way on immigration, although House Speaker John Boehner has as much said the issue is dead for 2014, something effective might get done.

They need to, as Gardenhire did, try to do what is possible, not necessarily popular, in small bites. Indeed, he said, 56 percent of residents in his district were opposed to such a move during his 2012 campaign.

Start with the children, the students, the economic future of the country. Craft something similar, get it passed and look for the next doable -- and sensible -- step.

What's been allowed to happen over the last 30 years, the mass influx of illegal immigrants into the country, won't -- and shouldn't -- be solved in one sweeping bill. It can't be. But bite by bite, well-thought out, well-crafted, well-written legislation might be a pretty tasty apple.