Just when it seemed state lawmakers in Florida were poised to pass a bill that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities, a state senator moved to block the bill.
That triggered dozens of Dreamers and supporters of the bill from across the state to head to the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee this week. They’ve spent the last few days pressuring Senate leaders to allow a vote on the bill. On Thursday, they set up “Dream University” inside the Capitol to symbolize the number of Dreamers who would benefit from the in-state tuition bill.
“We’re going to be at the Capitol until the bill is brought to the floor for a vote,” Nanci Palacios, a 25-year-old Dreamer, told VOXXI. “If that takes all of next week to do it, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
The bill, SB 1400, has already been approved in three of four Senate committees. It has 21 co-sponsors, meaning that it has enough votes to pass in the 40-member Senate. What’s more, the House already approved its version of the bill last month with a vote of 81-33.
Senator moves to block the in-state tuition bill
But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron (R-Stuart) is blocking SB 1400 from moving forward. He is doing so by refusing to bring up the bill for a vote in his committee, which is the last hurdle the bill must pass before it’s brought to the Senate floor for a final vote.
In a statement defending his decision, Negron said he believes in-state tuition rates should be “reserved for legal residents of Florida.”
“Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities,” he stated. “Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could be become eligible for in-state tuition.”
Another option to move the bill forward would be to have Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, bypassing the Appropriations Committee. But like Negron, Gaetz opposes the bill.
In an op-ed published last week, Gaetz wrote that he has been told it’s “good politics” to support the bill and that it would “help Republicans appeal to Hispanic voters” in the upcoming elections.
“However, SB 1400 is not limited to Hispanics,” Gaetz wrote. “It casts a blanket of approval over noncitizens who are in this country without proper legal status from anywhere in the world, including countries that are caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence.”
While the bill faces opposition from some conservative Republicans, some GOP leaders have sprung into action to push the bill forward.
Gov. Rick Scott, who in the past has taken a hardline stance on immigration issues, is one of them. Last week, the Republican governor joined former Florida Governors Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez to urge Senate leaders to approve the bill.
“Students who have spent their childhood here in Florida deserve to qualify for the same in-state tuition rate at universities their peers and classmates do,” stated Scott, who is facing re-election this year and needs support from Latino voters to win. “The Florida Senate should take immediate action to move SB 1400 forward.”
Dreamers and supporters of SB 1400 have also been keeping the pressure on Gaetz.
They visited his office Tuesday to ask him to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. They planned to visit Gaetz’s office again on Friday to deliver high school diplomas belonging to immigrant youth who would benefit from SB 1400.
Dreamers push for the in-state tuition bill
With only a week left in the legislative session, Dreamers and supporters of SB 1400 are doing everything they can to push for the bill. Next week, they plan to hold a mock graduation ceremony and a prayer vigil to urge Senate leaders to bring the bill for a vote.
Evelyn Rivera, a 25-year-old Dreamer from Florida, has been helping to organize the actions happening at the Capitol. She told VOXXI that the last time Florida lawmakers came this close to passing an in-state tuition bill for undocumented students was in 2005. She said she is encouraged by the support the bill has been getting this time around and hopes it will pass.
“I’m just really excited because I think we’re in a very good moment, and we have a lot of really good momentum on our side,” she said.
Palacios is also optimistic. She said she is pushing for SB 1400 to pass so that undocumented students in Florida are able to attain a college education like she did. She recently earned an associates degree in health science and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.
“There are a lot of students in Florida who are wanting to continue their education and get themselves a career that will ultimately benefit the state,” she said.