By Andy Sher

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, says he believes his plan of letting some undocumented immigrants pay in-state tuition rates to attend Tennessee public colleges and universities may fare better in the Legislature this year than in 2014.

"I think in the Senate it will pass," Gardenhire said. "I think in the House it will pass -- if we can stay focused on what the real issue is. And the real issue is if we're going to get to the governor's Drive to 55 [target], then we have to have that segment of population highly educated."

Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative calls for 55 percent of Tennessee adults to have a college degree or certificate by 2025. Gardenhire's bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, would apply to students who've spent at least three years in a Tennessee school and who graduate from a state high school. This year's version requires students to have applied for U.S. citizenship, he said.

The bill ran into trouble last year, which Gardenhire attributed to not having enough time to educate colleagues on the issue, as well as attacks by outside groups. But he succeeded and passed another bill that allows U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants to attend colleges at in-state tuition rates.

He cites statistics showing college-educated immigrants use far fewer costly government services than those who aren't.

This year, the bill has gained support from business groups and the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents' systems, Gardenhire said.

"They have to be in Tennessee and go to Tennessee high schools for three years. That means this is not somebody running across the border and running up here and doing it. We're getting away from those issues," he said.

"We have to take away the economic barriers that keep them from getting a degree," Gardenhire added. "We're not giving them anything. We're just allowing them to do what other people are doing. And these are children we're talking about. We're not talking about parents, we're talking about children."

Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), welcomed the renewed effort, saying that "for years, immigrant youth and their allies across Tennessee have been campaigning for tuition equality and now we are closer than ever."

She noted the bill makes college affordable for immigrants now paying more than triple the in-state tuition rate.

The group estimates as many as 25,000 Tennessee high school graduates could benefit.

(c)2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press