Tennessee lawmakers say Congress’ DACA actions will guide debate on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

Learn how to walk on egg shells, become a Tennessee Legislator.


The Tennessean

Tennessee lawmakers are watching Congress closely for clarity on how to handle in-state tuition for people living in the country illegally.

The hope is a decision by Congress on whether to act on a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will pave the way for debate about in-state tuition.

DACA, as it is known, is a program created by then-President Barack Obama in 2012 that provides protections for young immigrants. It will end in 2018 under President Donald Trump. Trump has asked Congress to provide a long-term fix.

“One of my hopes is that Congress will address the DACA issue. If they address that and make it a federal issue, it will help our regional bill,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, a sponsor of efforts to enact in-state tuition for students who entered the country illegally as children or overstayed their visas (a nice way of saying illegal). “That’s where we have lost in the past. It was an executive order. But it is Congress’ responsibility.”

The Tennessee General Assembly has blocked in-state tuition for those here without permission for years. 

In the spring 2017 legislative session, a House committee voted against advancing legislation on the issue despite the governor backing the proposal. A similar measure failed by one vote on the House floor in 2015.

Immigrant students who entered the country illegally must currently pay out-of-state tuition to attend a public college. The out-of-state rates — which can be two or three times higher than in-state tuition — can create a barrier for students who grew up in Tennessee, immigrant advocates say.

Those students are not eligible for federal or state financial aid.

Opponents of the in-state tuition bill also feel that Congress must act before Tennessee lawmakers begin any considerations.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, has been against in-state tuition for people that entered into the U.S. illegally but said he would entertain a solution at the state level if a federal solution passes and is constitutional.

“Essentially, with in-state tuition, we can’t do anything until there are federal laws for illegal aliens,” Ragan said.

If the Tennessee General Assembly takes up the effort this year, any future legislation will need to be reworked if it is to comply with a recent Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion.

A bill White sponsored in the spring 2017 session would have given the authority to state colleges to grant in-state tuition to those living in the country illegally. The attorney general opinion said the legislature can’t grant individual colleges that authority.

The ability to grant in-state tuition to those students “requires an affirmative choice by the state legislature to provide benefits to individuals who cannot prove their lawful presence in the United States,” the opinion says. “A choice by one or more state
institutions of higher education to provide such benefits would not satisfy the requirements.”

But Tennessee immigrant rights groups say neither Congress nor the recent opinion should stop efforts to pass an in-state tuition bill.

Stephanie Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, hopes to see state legislators consider an in-state tuition bill given the support it has throughout the state.

“And there is no question that Tennessee can pass a bill in a way that is compliant with Tennessee law,” Teatro said.

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