Despite A New Push, In-State Tuition For Undocumented Students Fails Again In Tennessee Legislature

Apr 11, 2017

Lawmakers have again rejected a proposal to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from Tennessee high schools.

The plan was debated for the second time in three years, and there had been some signs it might have a chance of passing. But skeptics say they're still unwilling to extend any benefits to people who came to the U.S. illegally, even children.

About 13,000 Tennessee schoolchildren are believed to have been brought to the U.S. illegally, and several thousand more have graduated from the state's high schools.

That includes Karla Meza. She was born in Mexico but grew up in the Knoxville area from age 3. She graduated from Powell High School but hasn't been able to enroll in the University of Tennessee because she can't afford it.

"I'm a Tennessean. I love Knoxville. I mean, I really believe in this state. I know things are difficult right now and the situation that I'm in, but I love this state, being here."

Meza testified in favor of House Bill 863. She says she's six credits short of an associate's degree in sociology at Pellissippi State Community College and hopes to study law at UT one day.

Many Tennessee lawmakers, including some Republicans, argue that after educating students like Meza through high school, it'd be a waste not to send them on to college, and action needs to be taken immediately, before these students start families and grow too busy to get their degrees.

That had given supporters of the so-called "tuition equality" bill renewed hope that it could pass this year. The last serious debate on the measure was in 2015, when it came a single vote short of clearing the state legislature.

But there are still plenty of lawmakers opposed to the idea. They argue giving immigrants in the country illegally in-state tuition would be unfair to American citizens who live in other states.

Murfreesboro Republican Dawn White also says it'll make Tennessee a "magnet" for undocumented immigrants.

"My county, we're building a school a year," she says. "So think of what it's going to do to my county with the influx of people that will move here if we pass this bill."

This time around, in-state tuition for undocumented students fell one vote short of advancing out of the House Education Administration & Planning Committee.

Supporters say they hope to bring it back again. They note that 20 states have approved the idea. That includes Florida, which debated the issue for a decade before eventually passing it.