Gov. Rick Scott 'considers’ backing in-state tuition for undocumented students

Facing a tough fight for reelection and needing stronger Hispanic support, Gov. Rick Scott says he’ll “consider” offering cheaper in-state tuition to some Florida college students who are undocumented immigrants.

Scott tiptoed around the subject Wednesday in a meeting with the Legislature’s Hispanic caucus, offering tepid responses on an emotionally charged issue as new Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera sat alongside.

“I’ll certainly consider it,” Scott said before pivoting to a favorite talking point, the cost of tuition. “I want all tuition to stop growing.”

Scott, who favored an Arizona-style anti-immigration law when he ran for governor in 2010, risks alienating some conservative Republicans if he embraces in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. But Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Hispanic caucus, offered Scott some advice.

“The number of Hispanic voters is growing,” Garcia said. “This administration needs to take that into account.”

Scott angered Hispanics last year by vetoing a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in some cases. The bill passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin.

Pressure is building on Scott to take a stand on in-state tuition because it is the Hispanic caucus’ top priority and is supported by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

“I believe there’s an injustice and an inequality for kids who are brought here based on no decision they ever made,” Weatherford told the Herald/Times. “Right now there is a barrier for them furthering their education, and I think that injustice should be rectified.”

The proposal will face strong Senate resistance. In-state tuition is about one-third of the cost for non-residents, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, used the example of “an American citizen living in Atlanta” having to pay higher tuition to send a child to a Florida university than an undocumented immigrant would pay.

“I don’t think that would be fair,” Negron said.

At the caucus meeting, two Hispanic legislators tried to pin down Scott on the issue, but he wouldn’t take a stand.

“It’s important to distinguish between children and people who are just breaking the law and coming to this country illegally,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

Florida International University and Miami Dade College offer partial tuition waivers to students who are in President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That provides temporary deportation relief to young adults brought to the United States illegally as children.

No other Florida college or university offers the waivers, but students at USF and the University of Florida are lobbying their schools to follow suit.

Seventeen states offer in-state tuition to certain undocumented students.

The issue has been floated for 11 years in the Florida Legislature, and in 2012, while House majority leader, Lopez-Cantera did not push for the bill to be heard, even as two dozen young people and farm workers staged a sit-in at his Capitol office.

Asked Wednesday how he voted on the issue as a House member, Lopez-Cantera said: “I haven’t reviewed my voting record recently.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.