TALLAHASSEE — Students living as illegal immigrants in Florida would qualify for in-state tuition through a waiver process under a Senate bill approved Tuesday, a day before the state House is expected to take up a similar proposal.
But if the 5-4 vote by the Senate Education Committee is any indication, the bill may have a rough road ahead of it.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, cleared its first committee hearing Tuesday. The proposal extends in-state tuition benefits to students who are illegal immigrants through an out-of-state fee waiver, rather than a residency classification.
“It’s just the right thing to do, it’s time,” Latvala said. “The kids whose parents are illegal are still going to be punished. They’re still not going to be able to have Bright Futures (scholarships). They’re still not going to be able to have financial aid. So there is still going to be a difference and I just don’t think this is the appropriate place to have the difference, if they’re residents and taxpayers of this state.”
To receive the out-of-state fee waiver, these students would need to attend high school in Florida for three consecutive years immediately before graduation; enroll in a higher education institution, such as a Florida college or university, within 24 months of graduation; and submit an official Florida high school transcript to prove they attended and graduated from a Florida school.
They wouldn’t be eligible for state financial aid.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “I think these young people, these students, deserve the opportunity to get an education at the same rate as someone who has grown up, like they have, in this state.”
Simmons and Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, were the only Republicans to vote for the bill. The remaining Republican committee members voted against the measure, saying they couldn’t support the proposal because it rewarded students who aren’t legal residents.
“I am so happy to see our leaders, both Republicans and Democrats … putting in-state tuition as one of their priorities,” said Saul Aleman, an organizer with Homestead Action, at a rally in the state Capitol following the Senate hearing.
Aleman’s mother brought him to the U.S. from Mexico at age 2. He is set to graduate from Miami-Dade College this year and wants to attend Florida International University or the University of Florida.
Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was among those who voted against Latvala’s proposal.
“I oppose forcing law-abiding Florida families to subsidize the tuition of those whose families’ first act in the U.S. was breaking our immigration laws,” she said in a statement before the education committee’s discussion. “SB 1400 creates incentives for illegal immigration and I will vote ‘no’ when it comes to a vote in the Senate Education Committee this morning.”
Latvala, who predicted a close vote, said he will wait to see how the bill progresses but still hopes it will make it onto the Senate floor for a vote.
“I have to believe this will go all the way to the floor. And I’ve got the votes on the floor, I’m confident,” he said after the meeting.
A similar bill — HB 851, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami — cleared its final committee hurdle in the House last week. That bill could receive a vote on the House floor as early as Wednesday.
A version of this legislation has been proposed every session for the past 11 years, but many times never received a committee hearing.
This year, however, the measure has an ally in House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made the issue one of his top priorities in 2014.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he doesn’t support the legislation, but that he wouldn’t block a vote.
Matt Dixon of the Capital Bureau contributed to this report.