Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Legislature must pass tuition bill for undocumented ‘dreamers’

It’s discouraging to see thousands of Florida students eager to get a college education become collateral damage in an intra-party squabble by Florida’s Republican lawmakers. They’re caught in a fight between those who want to seize the future and those who are stuck in the past.

Florida Senate Bill 1400, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would offer high school graduates who are undocumented immigrants the same lower tuition rates as the other kids in their graduation classes. It would apply only to those who were brought here as children — raised American — and not to all undocumented immigrants.

The elementary fairness of the proposal is self-evident. Whatever violation these young people incurred, whatever line they crossed, was not of their own volition. Their parents brought them here. They learned to cherish American values and education as a path to a good life, and they want to pursue that dream.

This is not a zero-sum game. No one loses if they win. On the contrary, Florida has already subsidized their education because they are largely graduates of public schools. Does the state want more home-grown college graduates, or fewer? Florida or Flori-duh?

Everyone who lives here has a stake in this issue because we all stand to lose if the potential of these students is thwarted. And it well could be because families of eligible students would have to pay nearly $15,000 a year more in tuition costs. That figure represents a huge obstacle for deserving students.

But instead of getting a helping hand from the Legislature, they’re about to get the back of the hand because of a deep division in the Republican Party.

The House version of SB 1400 passed by a margin of 81-33, reflecting the support of powerful GOP Speaker Will Weatherford, who said he wanted to right “an injustice and an inequality for kids who are brought here based on no decision they ever made.” Mr. Weatherford understands the symbolic importance of the measure for Hispanics in a state where they form an increasing part of the electorate. Democrats are all for it. For the GOP, rejecting it is a form of political suicide.

In the 40-member Senate, where it cleared three of its four committees, the bill has 21 co-sponsors. But it was blocked by two of the chamber’s top leaders, Senate President Don Gaetz and budget chairman Joe Negron, apparently pandering to the party’s right-wing, anti-immigrant base.

Mr. Gaetz said the law might benefit those “from countries which are caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence.” How regrettable — and how embarrassing — for one of the state’s highest elected officials to resort to such hoary scare tactics in reference to Florida students who only want a better education.

Paging Gov. Rick Scott. Where are you? Mr. Scott, who based his first campaign on an extreme anti-immigrant stance, has since come around. He even endorsed this legislation. But, as he has done on other issues, he has shown little leadership, urging the Senate to take up the bill in an unusual joint statement with former GOP Govs. Jeb Bush and Bob Martinez — but not doing much more.

Mr. Scott shouldn’t need cover from two ex-governors. On Tuesday, the governor said he spoke with Speaker Weatherford and President Gaetz and expressed confidence the Legislature would ultimately do the right thing.

That remains to be seen. As governor and leader of the GOP, he has a lot riding on this. If Gov. Scott can’t make this happen, all his words about leadership in reelection campaign ads will ring hollow.

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