Florida allows undocumented students to get in-state tuition

In a move that surprised many political observers, Florida’s Legislature recently passed a law, effective July 1, making undocumented immigrants eligible to pay in-state tuition at the state’s community colleges and universities.

The law, HB 851, will affect about 200,000 undocumented immigrant students in Florida who graduated from public high schools or earned Graduate Education Development diplomas (GEDs). The tuition savings will be as much as 75 percent compared to out-of-state or international student tuition at some schools.

Florida’s Republican-dominated House passed the bill by an 81-33 vote, despite numerous earlier statements from Gov. Rick Scott that he would not sign it. But Scott signed the bill as soon as it reached his desk.

After his about-face, Scott said, “Signing this historic legislation today will keep tuition low and allow all students who grew up in Florida to have the same access to affordable higher education.”

The bill was introduced in the Legislature multiple times in the past decade, but failed to pass each time. The most recent attempt was in 2010, when the vote was 55-41, five votes shy of passing.

Kathleen McGrory, a Miami Herald staff writer who covers state government in Tallahassee, said the governor realized it was “a gamble to support the bill.”

McGrory attributed Scott’s reluctance to sign the bill to fear of alienating conservatives during his campaign for re-election against popular former Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican Party to run as a Democrat.

Rep. Eric Fresen, (R-Miami) co-sponsored the bill. He said it passed the Legislature with bi-partisan support because it made sense both logically and economically.

“It shines a bright light on the state of Florida. It’s a matter of morality,” Fresen said. “Most importantly, it creates stability for undocumented immigrants.”

There has been confusion between Florida’s law and the federal DREAM Act. Many call the state’s in-state tuition law Florida’s DREAM Act, but there are vast differences between HB 851 and the more comprehensive national proposal.

The federal DREAM Act, held hostage in Congress since 2001 by conservatives, would give young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a path to citizenship. Florida’s new law only offers them in-state tuition.

In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the federal DREAM Act, which was then defeated in the Senate. Students wearing college mortarboards and pro-DREAM Act t-shirts, who had spent months lobbying for the bill, crowded the Senate gallery to watch.

To benefit from the DREAM Act, undocumented students must have entered the country when they were 15 or younger, graduated from high school or obtained a GED. Then they would have become eligible to receive permanent residency status if they completed two years of military service or two years of college, then completed a 10-year waiting period.

Although the national DREAM Act did not pass, 19 states, including Florida, have enacted laws that give some special consideration to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. In 2001, California and Texas were the first to enact laws granting in-state tuition for undocumented college students.

In Jan. 2012, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose Cuban immigrant parents were granted political asylum, said, “People in the United States who are here without documents should not benefit from programs like in-state tuition.”

According to Fresen and Cuban-born Rep. Eddy Gonzalez (R-Hialeah), the bill became a priority for both parties when Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford pushed for its passage.

Both [parties] felt the need to vote but before it was not a priority,” Gonzalez said. “Weatherford made it easier to work on the bill.”

Prior to this law, undocumented students were required to pay out-of-state or international student tuition, which is up to five times higher.

For Paola Pardo, a 21-year-old student at Miami Dade College, finishing college was not possible without in-state tuition. She started taking classes two years ago, but could not take a full course load because of out-of-state tuition rates.

Last year, though, Miami Dade College began to grant waivers to undocumented students for in-state tuition. She has benefitted from the waiver since then, but is happy that she will no longer have to apply for a waiver come fall.

I want a better future for myself and I know that I need to go to school for that to happen,” Pardo said.

To qualify for the in-state tuition, undocumented immigrants need to meet three requirements. Students must be attending a secondary school for three consecutive years before graduating from high school or earning a GED. They must enroll at a state college or university within 24 months of their graduation.

Finally, the student must submit an official Florida high school transcript as evidence of completion.

Fresen predicts Florida’s bill will serve as a model template for other states with high undocumented immigrant populations who have not already passed such laws.

“It recognizes the students we’ve been caring for,” Fresen said. “We don’t ignore very worthy kids.”