This story was updated March 28, 2018, at 9:25 p.m. with more information.
NASHVILLE — A legislative effort to allow some undocumented students living in Tennessee to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges is dead for the year, a victim of election-year politics, said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, the bill's sponsor.
Gardenhire said House leadership doesn't want the bill to come up for a vote, while Senate leaders insist the House act first before allowing the measure to move forward.
The senator said this year's governor's race knocked the bill off course. He noted the House for the third year in a row "has killed it under the leadership of Beth Harwell," the Republican House speaker who is running for governor.
He called it "Very disappointing. Very disappointing when you've got all four [Republican] gubernatorial candidates against it and one of them in particular, Diane Black, being personal about it."
Lisa Sherman Nikolaus, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, said the group and aspiring students were "extremely disappointed that the legislature failed once again to give all Tennessee graduates a fair shot at fulfilling their dreams to go to college."
With hundreds of undocumented Tennesseans graduating from high schools here "without opportunities for their future, she said, "at the very least, we had hoped our elected officials could have shown courage and moral leadership by bringing this bill to a vote.
"Instead," she said, "they prioritized careers over courage, fear over fairness and politics over principle. They have shown they are as ineffective and out of step with Tennesseans as Congress."
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican running for governor, last week blasted the legislation and appeared to take a personal swipe at Gardenhire, saying that "too many times, so-called conservatives get elected promising to fight against liberal policies, only to embrace them once in office. It's a shame to see our state legislature do just that."facebook
That drew a stinging rebuke from Gardenhire, a decades-long convervative, who has avoided taking sides in the Republican gubneratorial primary.
"I'm not only offended, but I'm very upset about that," Gardenhire said, citing President Ronald Reagan's famous "11th Commandment" against publicly criticizing other Republicans. "So, her day of reckoning will come when she comes to Hamilton County."
He also said he was surprised "they did that without talking to both sides. I don't understand when people do what they do and hurt children."
Students lined up outside the Senate hearing room where the Education Committee members had been scheduled to consider the bill. Many of them carried orange signs saying, "Give Us A Chance, Give Us a Vote #LetUsLearn."
The issue of in-state tuition has become a quest for Gardenhire, who has advanced what he considers conservative arguments in favor of it. He says the students are already in Tennessee and aren't going anywhere. Thus, he says, their ability to obtain technical or university degrees will allow them to earn more, lead more productive lives and result in their being less of a societal and economic burden.
The latest iteration of the bill would apply to undocumented students who spent at least three years in a Tennessee high school or obtained a GED here.
Gardenhire in 2015 got the original bill through the Senate, but it failed on the House floor by a single vote. Speaker Harwell was out of the chamber at the time but said she would have voted against it.
The bill was originally tied to students' participation in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted administrative relief to eligible immigrant youths brought to the U.S. as children.
But the issue has become more complicated with the election of President Donald Trump, who jettisoned the DACA program. The issue now is entangled in back-and-forth disagreements between Trump and congressional Democrats on other immigration issues, including building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Currently, undocumented students can attend public colleges here but have to pay out-of-state tuition rates as high as triple the in-state rates. Gardenhire said many of the 30 or so students who came to the state Capitol wept when he informed him the bill would not be pursued further this year.
A number of states allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates.