Immigrant Tuition Bill Fails by 1 Vote in Tennessee

As the Tennessee House debated a bill Wednesday that could determine whether he can eventually afford college, 15-year-old Carlos Reyes was in the balcony.
by | April 27, 2015 AT 10:20 AM

By Andy Sher

As the Tennessee House debated a bill Wednesday that could determine whether he can eventually afford college, 15-year-old Carlos Reyes was in the balcony.

In the end, the bill to allow some undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities failed by one vote, 49-47. Fifty votes were needed to approve the bill, which had passed in the Senate. The measure is dead until next year.

"It does make me feel kind of upset," said Reyes, a high school student from Murfreesboro whose parents brought him illegally to the U.S. "I really hope they pass this law soon. For us, the community, the immigrants, we want to go to college. Our hopes, it's like, we're just waiting."

The proposal was sponsored by Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis. Last week, senators approved Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga's version of the bill on a 21-12 vote, culminating a three-year effort by Gardenhire, White and immigrant advocates.

White thought he had the votes but over the hour-plus debate, support began eroding as GOP opponents began tying the bill to continued frustration over illegal immigration and executive actions taken by President Barack Obama.

White urged colleagues to stand with him.

"This bill is about education; it's not about immigration reform," White said. "They were brought up here [as children] and this allows them to pay in-state tuition."

Under current law, undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition -- as much as three times higher than in-state -- at public colleges, even though their families may have lived and paid taxes in Tennessee for decades.

The bill would cover Tennessee school graduates who were brought to the U.S. before 2007 who were under age 16 and who qualify as being in the country "lawfully" under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That program also requires they pass criminal background checks.

The House attack against the bill began with a series of three amendments sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden.

"We're saying we are not going to give the same access ... to lawful citizens of our own country as to what we're giving" the students, Holt charged, asking why U.S.-born students in nearby states get in-state rates.

All the Holt amendments were eventually tabled, most by larger margins than the final vote.

As debate went on, Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, asked "how many of these illegal aliens are going to use this benefit?"

White said some 7,000 students have been deemed lawful under the DACA program.

"We're giving people hope," White said, adding, "I hope many do" qualify.

Backing White was Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, an unlikely ally with a history of fierce opposition to illegal immigration. Womick and other supporters said the students are already here and college educations will help them get better jobs and become productive taxpayers who won't need social services.

"They're going to stay here, more than likely, after they go to school," Womick said. "They're going to contribute to this society, to our state."

Eben Cathey, with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said proponents are disappointed about "losing by a hair." But he said getting as far as they did was "amazing." They will return next year, he said.

"We're not done yet," Cathey said. "We knew it was going to be an uphill battle. ... There's a lot of momentum to make this policy happen."

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell did not preside over the debate and did not cast a vote. But she said later she would have voted no, calling it a "slippery slope."

"... There are a lot of people who were naturally born here that are struggling to pay college tuitions. If we're going to do this for them, I do believe let's do away with out-of-state tuition altogether."

(c)2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)