By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Just a few days shy of the beginning of this year’s legislation session, there are signs that in-state tuition for undocumented students might pass.
State lawmakers could approve a bill this session allowing qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition even if they are in the country illegally.
The tuition debate is a perennial one in Tallahassee. Similar bills passed the House and Senate, but never in the same year. But this year, the measure appears to be gaining broader support.
House Speaker Bill Weatherford has staunchly backed the proposal, even penning a newspaper column in its favor. He reiterated his support recently after the House bill passed its first subcommittee. The state’s Hispanic Caucus also has made it a priority.
…The bill would cover all Florida youth who attended at least three years of high school in the state and apply for college within two years of graduation — regardless of their immigration status.
The bill also would provide in-state tuition to veterans and would require students to be U.S. citizens to receive state financial aid.
Over a dozen states already have similar laws on the books. This year, several others are also adopting in-state tuition legislation for immigrants.
State legislatures all over the country are addressing immigration laws as comprehensive reform stalls in Congress.
In the past, Florida lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation dealing with the state’s many undocumented immigrants, but most have failed.
Last year, state lawmakers were able to pass bills in both GOP-led chambers that would have allowed many young undocumented immigrants to apply for a temporary driver’s license. However, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The in-state tuition bill, however, has had trouble passing both chambers in the same year.
But state leaders say that might change this year.
Senate President Don Gaetz opposes a bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t get a hearing in the Senate, he said in an interview with the Herald/Times this week.
“The issue will be very likely debated in the Senate,” Gaetz said. “Where [it] goes, I don’t know.”
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is expected to file a bill next week that would allow some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates.
Gaetz said the upper chamber is divided on the proposal. He said a proponent had conducted an informal poll, and determined that 18 senators support the measure.
And Scott—who has blocked immigration bills in the past—told a group of Hispanic lawmakers recently that he would “consider” signing an in-state tuition bill if it came to his desk.
As the AP pointed out, this is a definite change in tone on immigration compared to just a few years ago:
Miami organizer and radio show host Subhash Kateel says the in-state tuition bill highlights the shift in Tallahassee when it comes to immigration. Back in 2011, most bills coming through the Legislature emphasized enforcement. They failed.
Now, the bills coming through tend to add rights for immigrants. Also up, with less chance of passing: bills to provide driver licenses for immigrants in the country illegally and to speed up the wait time for children of legal residents to receive the state’s federally funded health insurance.
This could be good timing for Scott, who is facing a re-election fight this year. The GOP, in general, has had a hard time with Hispanic voters. In Florida, Hispanic voters are a pivotal demographic that Scott– and other lawmakers– will need in their re-election campaigns.