Florida Senator Derails In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students

In a move that has shocked Florida residents, Republican state senator Joe Negron has determined that SB 1400, a bill aimed to grant the Sunshine State’s undocumented students access to in-state tuition rates, will not be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s Appropriations Committee meeting.

Senator Negron’s decision comes after SB 1400 moved favorably out of all the committee referrals with bipartisan support, receiving the co-sponsorship of 21 Florida senators. Those 21 senators would have constituted the majority needed to pass SB 1400 on the full floor of the Florida Senate, comprised of 40 senators.

First introduced as HB 851 by Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez in the Florida House of Representatives, Nuñez’s bill overwhelmingly passed—the results of a bipartisan vote made possible by the support of Speaker Will Weatherford.

Intended to alleviate the burden of out-of-state tuition costs for undocumented Florida students who met various requirements, such as attending and graduating from a Florida high school, SB 1400 also contained several provisions that even captured the support of Republican Governor Rick Scott.

This latest development essentially shut down the efforts of various organizations, as well as the voices of institutions of higher education who have been supporting the bill from its inception.

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In a statement released on Thursday afternoon, Negron outlined the following concerns about SB1400:

Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities. Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could become eligible for in-state tuition.

On this first point, Negron cast a wide generalization—that undocumented students are able to resolve their undocumented status. That of course is an issue stalled in the U.S. Congress, ironically by members of his own party. Without comprehensive immigration reform, undocumented students and those who have been covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) are unable to access in-state tuition funds.

In fact, this Session, the Senate heard from undocumented students who testified that their out-of-state tuition has been waived.  The bottom line is that state colleges and universities already have the flexibility to waive out-of-state tuition in their discretion.

SB1400 aimed to regulate where Florida universities and colleges had such authority. While the point has been argued several times in the past couple of months, many colleges have looked at the leadership of their elected representatives to ensure that they would not be chastised in any way, shape, or form by adopting policies such as the ones already adopted by Miami Dade College and Florida International University.

How many students will be impacted?  What is the actual cost of this proposal to the taxpayers of Florida?  If state colleges and universities can absorb the tens of millions of dollars in lost tuition, what effect will this policy have on limited financial aid funds for Florida students and parents? I believe it is imprudent to commit Florida to a new statewide education law without first ascertaining the present and future fiscal impact.

As one of the states with the highest migrant populations in the country, it is hard to estimate the fiscal impact would have on Florida. Bear in mind, however, that various reports said the population would be able to afford out-of-pocket costs of college at the in-state tuition level. So the impacts would be minimal.

SB 1400 would have not allowed for beneficiaries to take any money from the state or federal government. No Bright Future Scholarships or Pell grants would have been disbursed to SB 1400 beneficiaries. Moreover, how much has the Florida invested in undocumented students through public education? To deny us the opportunity to pay a fair rate, without state help, is losing out on an opportunity and investment already been made to those who are unable to legalize our immigration status.

As the bill faces an uncertain future, there are some who already deem it is “dead.”  However, others are turning up the heat—including Republicans Scott, Jeb Bush and Mel Martinez.

Meanwhile, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz had this to say about the efforts of his fellow senators:

I am told it is ‘good politics’ to support Sen. [Jack] Latvala’s bill, that it will help Republican candidates appeal to Hispanic voters in the 2014 and 2016 elections,” he wrote. “Perhaps. It is certainly true that the Republican Party has lost much of the Hispanic support President Bush earned in 2000 and 2004 and that Gov. Jeb Bush still has in our state and across the nation.

But Gaetz argued that SB 1400 is “not limited to Hispanics.”

It casts a blanket of approval over non-citizens who are in this country without proper legal status from anywhere in the world, including countries which are cauldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence,” he wrote. “There is no improper or careless intent behind the legislation, but this bill goes much further than merely reaching out to Hispanic voters.

Mr. Gaetz was right in determining that this is not just a “Hispanic issue,” but to go as far as to say that some of these students (myself included) come here from “caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence” is insulting and unacceptable.

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Yes, many of us who find ourselves here without a legal status came here fleeing violence in our home countries, but that does not make us criminals nor terrorists. It makes us human.

We came to this country to seek a better life, for us and our families, and despite every challenge that we have been presented (no drivers licenses, no in-state tuition, no scholarships), we are still graduating and making a difference in our communities.

I don’t know about the Florida Senate, but personally, my community and I are tired of serving as the peons of a broken system that does not recognize our efforts or good will. Whatever happens with SB 1400, we are thankful for people like Senator Latvala, whose hard work has given hope to so many students around this state. Change can occur in the Sunshine State, and even as SB 1400 is falling into the pile of failed bills, we, the people of Florida, shall not remain silent.

Senator Joe Negron may think he is doing Florida a favor, but in reality he is kidnapping a piece of legislation that a majority of his party and Florida’s elected representatives support. This is political theater at its finest, one that deals a swift blow to Floridians wishing to continue their educations and strengthening the Sunshine State.

I urge everyone to tell Negron and Gaetz to schedule SB1400 for a hearing.

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Juan Escalante is an undocumented immigrant, studying for his Masters in Public Administration Candidate at Florida State University. You can follow Juan on Twitter@JuanSaaa.

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