NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill to offer in-state tuition for Tennessee public college students whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally has stalled in the House.
If passed, the tuition bill would have only applied to students who spent at least three years in Tennessee high schools or home schooling before graduating or finishing GED testing. It managed to pass just one House subcommittee this session before a Senate committee approved a motion not to hear the bill Wednesday because of the House’s inaction.
In a contentious election year, the bill’s fate was further complicated by federal inaction to extend a President Barack Obama-era program offering a reprieve from deportation to thousands of young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
President Donald Trump has proposed a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants who currently could qualify for deportation protection, but in exchange he wants new legal immigration restrictions and $25 billion for border security. The plan has divided Congress.
Lawmakers in Tennessee are just as divided.
Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire described the bill as a “political hot potato,” pointing out that the four major GOP gubernatorial candidates have said they oppose it.
One of them, Beth Harwell, said at a governor’s race forum in January that if paying out-of-state tuition is bad, it should also be bad for her two children who were born in America and had to pay that higher rate.
The defeat of the Tennessee bill dealt a blow to the affected students who have frequented the Capitol complex, lobbying lawmakers and snapping photos with Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who has said he supports the proposal because the state needs a trained workforce.
They lined up outside legislative committee rooms Wednesday, holding signs that read, “Give us a chance, give us a vote. #LetUsLearn.”
Lisa Sherman Nikolaus of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition said lawmakers “prioritized careers over courage, fear over fairness and politics over principle.”
Lizeth Luna, an 18-year-old high school junior currently shielded from deportation, said her dream is to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and become a homicide investigator, but the price of out-of-state tuition would be tremendous.
“Having the help of only paying in-state tuition would be a huge help for me and my family,” said Luna, whose family came from Mexico.
About 20 other states and Washington, D.C., have similar in-state tuition policies for these students. Tennessee’s out-of-state rate can be three times what state residents pay.
A similar measure in 2015 passed the Senate, but died by a single vote on the House floor. The legislation died by one vote in a House committee last year.