House panel votes down Tennessee immigrant tuition bill

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Kaldari / Wikipedia / MGN(WVLT)
Published: Apr. 12, 2017 at 10:50 PM EDT
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A Tennessee House panel on Tuesday narrowly voted down a proposal to offer in-state tuition to public college students whose parents brought them or kept them in the country illegally, leaving several students in the room in tears.

The House Education Administration & Planning Committee voted 7-6 against the bill. A similar measure in 2015 passed the Senate but died by a single vote on the House floor.

Twenty other states and Washington, D.C. have similar in-state tuition policies for these students. Tennessee's out-of-state rate can be three times what state residents pay.

Republican bill sponsor Rep. Mark White of Memphis said the students didn't choose to enter the country at a young age. Many have been in Tennessee essentially their whole lives, and they're victimized by federal inaction, he said.

In the Republican state, White admitted the bill would prove a tough vote, especially amid a national political fight over immigration policies. He said that he has received emails calling him a "California liberal" and a "scumbag" for pushing the idea.

Though President Donald Trump has promoted mass deportations and fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border wall, White said his legislation matches his party's values.

"I believe that it is a basic, Republican, conservative position that if a person is willing to get up every morning, go to work, go to school and better their lives, that is what we have been about as a party all my life," White said.

More than a dozen Republican opponents held a news conference Monday to contend that tuition breaks shouldn't go to students here illegally or temporarily protected under former President Barack Obama's executive orders known as the

Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, said the United States and Tennessee have been "more than generous" in letting the students receive the same K-12 public education as other children.

"This will lead to an influx of non-citizen students on our education system," Matheny said of the bill.

To qualify under the legislation, students would have to attend school in Tennessee for the two years leading up to graduation and get a state-accredited high school degree, either from their school or after being home-schooled.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has supported this year's bill. He took time to meet and snap photos with the students last month, while they went legislator to legislator to share their stories.

Karla Meza, a 21-year-old whose parents brought her to Knoxville from Mexico at 3 years old, told lawmakers Tuesday that her dream is to study law at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but the out-of-state rate is too expensive. She hasn't finished her sociology degree at another school because she couldn't afford it.

"We're all here today to fight for our futures, to better our state, better our families," Meza said.

Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, provided a key vote against the legislation, despite co-sponsoring and voting for the 2015 bill. He cited the Trump presidency as one of the reasons he changed his vote.

"We've had a change in administrations, and there's been a lot of talk about solving the immigration issue once and for all, and coming up with a sustainable plan," Smith said after the vote. "And I think that needs to happen on the federal level, so that we know what we're actually going to be looking at here on the state level."

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