TALLAHASSEE -- When the Florida House voted Friday to extend in-state college tuition rates to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, Republican Rep. Frank Artiles called the move “a huge step forward.”
Some Democrats saw it as an empty gesture.
Democratic leaders pointed out that U.S. citizens with undocumented parents already qualify for in-state tuition in Florida under a 2012 federal court ruling.
When Democrats tried to have the proposal expanded to include undocumented students a day earlier, Republicans quickly quashed the conversation.
“The debate on how we can have equity for immigrant students got shut down,” said José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat.
The discussion in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature is taking place as Republicans nationwide soften their stance on immigration. Some say the national move is intended to broaden Republican appeal among Hispanic voters.
Florida lawmakers have considered similar college-tuition measures in the past. But this is the first year in recent memory that a proposal has gotten real traction.
After the House overwhelmingly approved the bill by a 111-4 vote, House Speaker Will Weatherford spoke to the chamber:
“What you just overwhelmingly passed said [that] if you are an American citizen, you will be treated like an American citizen in our education system,” Weatherford told legislators, drawing applause from the floor.
The four opponents were Republican Reps. Dennis Baxley, of Ocala; Matt Gaetz, of Fort Walton Beach; Jimmy Patronis, of Panama City; and John Tobia, of Melbourne Beach.
Despite the support in the House, the future of the bill is uncertain. The companion in the Senate has not had a hearing, significantly reducing the odds of its passage this session.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the upper chamber was “taking a look at it.”
The Senate could potentially take up the bill, but its companion would have to first be heard in a Senate Committee, spokeswoman Katherine Betta noted.
“With three weeks left in the session there is certainly more than enough time,” she said.
Historically, the children of undocumented immigrants have had to pay higher out-of-state tuition rates, even if they were born and raised in Florida. Last year, a federal court ruled that Florida could not deny in-state resident status to a U.S. citizen based on his or her parent’s immigration status.
But Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, said state law needed to include the language, and lay out the ways in which students could prove their Florida residency.
Her proposal also classifies military veterans as Florida residents for tuition purposes.
Still, some lawmakers say the bill falls short of making real change.
On Thursday, Rodríguez proposed an amendment that would have expanded the provision to include so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. His language would have given colleges and universities the option to offer in-state tuition for Dreamers who went to high school in Florida. The universities themselves would have had to make up the difference in price.
But House Rules Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, wouldn’t allow the amendment to be heard on the House floor, saying it was “not germane” to Nuñez’s bill. Democrats weren’t given a chance to debate the point of order.
Before Schenck weighed in, Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, had asked Nuñez why she left undocumented students out of the bill. Nuñez said the Florida Legislature should wait for direction from federal policymakers.
“We decided it would not be good policy to put the cart before the horse,” Nuñez said.
When the debate picked up again Friday, Democrats continued hammering the point.
Rep. Victor Manuel Torres Jr., an Orlando Democrat, spoke to his colleagues in Spanish: “ Todo que piden es el sueño de tener ese estudio para seguir su carrera en el futuro,” he said. “We want to put a proposal on the table that I think is meaningful,” said Fernandez.
Republican lawmakers were quick to remind Democrats that the bill wasn’t about undocumented students.
“The only thing that this bill does is provide in-state tuition for people who have been born in this country,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Republican. “This gives in-state tuition for American citizens.”
In her closing remarks, Nuñez said she recognized that many lawmakers wanted the bill go further. But she implored her colleagues not to let “the ideal” be the enemy of an otherwise good proposal.
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.