NASHVILLE -- A bill allowing undocumented children to attend Tennessee public colleges at in-state tuition rates is now flying to the Senate floor after backers included a provision restricting applicants to students legally authorized to be in the U.S. under a 2012 federal program.
Senate Finance Committee members approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on a 7-3 vote.
The House companion bill passed the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee later on a voice vote with prominent opponents of illegal immigration backing the bill.
"It took me by surprise," Gardenhire later told reporters. The bill, which he has pushed for three years, "is about kids being able to step up the ladder and become productive citizens in our community," the senator said.
Gardenhire, who has a number of Hispanic residents in his Chattanooga-based district, has long maintained that children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents shouldn't be punished for their parents' actions.
Several lawmakers say the deciding factor was the amendment restricting in-state tuition to students who are now lawfully in the U.S. under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Criteria for the program include the students having been under age 16 when they came to the U.S., having lived in the country continually for at least five years, graduation from a U.S. high school and no criminal record.
They also have to have come to the country before June 15, 2007, which appears to be addressing some lawmakers' concerns that in-state tuition could encourage more illegal immigrants to come to Tennessee.
Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, said that when he arrived at the Capitol on Monday he remained "dead set against" the bill. But he had a last-minute "epiphany."
"The fact that the parents are here under the radar just chills me to the bone, but that's no fault of the children," Calfee said. "I think that this is the right thing to do."
Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, has been a longtime opponent of illegal immigration and noted he, too, wasn't planning to support it.
But the outspoken conservative said he, too, changed his mind after hearing the testimony of Karla Chavez, an undocumented student who came to Nashville when she was 5 years old.
Chavez told the panel she didn't even know she was in the U.S. illegally until her junior year in high school when she began thinking about college. Her parents then informed her of her status.
Attending a state public college was difficult because out-of-state tuition was double, even triple the cost of in-state tuition, Chavez said.
Womick told the House education panel that while he thinks it's "unfair to those who come here through the legal process ... I look at these young men and women and this is not their fault."
"Who are we to say they cannot go on to college?" Womick asked.
Chavez said she was able to get a scholarship to Lipscomb University, a church-affiliated institution in Nashville. With the aid of two part-time jobs, she's able to make it. But students trying to attend a public college are in a quandary.
"I've seen a lot of my friends give up and quit" but now "a lot of students are seeing hope," Chavez said. "I'm really proud there are people who are able to make a bold move and make our dreams come true."
Affected students have been visiting with lawmakers in one-on-one visits, making their case.
Proponents of the bill say an estimated 25,000 children in Tennessee are undocumented.
Some 7,000 already have lawful status under the federal DACA program and an estimated 8,000 others are eligible to join.
Speaking with reporters later, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said the DACA provisions have him leaning toward voting yes on the measure.
"Before that amendment went on, I wasn't sure," Ramsey said, noting he is "75 percent" likely to support it now.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550.