By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog
TALLAHASSEE — It’s crunch time for state lawmakers, and with the annual 60-day legislative session winding down to within two weeks, a well-publicized immigration bill is noticeably absent Tuesday from a key budget meeting.
But an effort to add similar language to several other bills is under way.
Simply known as the Post Secondary Tuition bill, the proposed legislation would give dependents of undocumented immigrants equal footing when it comes to paying college tuition as students with legal resident status.
The same courtesy wouldn’t be extended to students from other states.
The measure largely has been cast as a moral imperative. State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the bill’s sponsor, has called it “the right thing to do.”
It’s also a politically sensitive issue earning broad bipartisan support. Democrats, many Republicans, Gov. Rick Scott, several former governors including Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and many news media outlets have piled on — Scott and Crist once opposed the idea, but now support it.
Critics charge the well-meaning proposal is an incentive to break immigration laws, with some blasting the political element of Republicans pandering to Hispanic and Latino voters.
David Caulkett, vice president of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, told Watchdog.org that any talk of enforcing immigration laws has been ignored.
“We’ve been censored,” Caulkett said. “Our side has been cut out of the debate, and no one is talking about the potential impacts.”
Caulkett said he’s concerned about the financial costs of the bill and doubts Republicans will gain more voters than they’ll lose.
“If it’s a moral imperative, then at what cost,” he said.
FLIMEN doesn’t oppose legal immigration, but challenges what it sees as illegal immigration incentives.
The main obstacle to the in-state tuition effort is not immigration enforcement groups, but Latvala’s presumed rival for the future Senate presidency, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Negron, the Senate Appropriations chairman, is in the position of ensuring bills have the necessary funding before being added to the state budget. The Post Secondary Tuition bill has too many unanswered questions, he said.
- How many students will be impacted?
- How much would it cost Sunshine State taxpayers?
- What will the effect be on financial aid funds for Florida’s legal students and parents?
Negron, a libertarian, also opposes the measure on principle.
“Legal immigration is a strength and asset to both Florida and the United States,” he said in a statement. “In-state tuition discounts should, in my view, be received for legal residents of Florida.”
According to the bill’s staff analysis, the Florida College System waived $93 million in tuition and fees for all students in 2011-12. Last year, costs jumped to $205 million and are expected to approach $300 million this year.
The costs of adding undocumented immigrants to the mix are unknown, but estimates reportedly run in the tens of millions.
There are no prohibitions for undocumented immigrants to attend any Florida public schools, and some colleges and universities already allow in-state tuition. Florida International University, located in greater Miami, was the first to do so, according to its website.
“FIU is the first public university in Florida to offer in-state tuition to students who have qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” said Vice President for Enrollment Services Luisa Havens. “This is an excellent opportunity for students who have lived their entire lives here in South Florida.”
The University of Florida doesn’t allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants — though university President Bernie Machen supports doing so — because it’s against the law.
“The University of Florida is prohibited by federal law to provide out-of-state tuition waivers or in-state tuition to these undocumented students,” states a legal opinion sought by the university.
Latvala’s bill would require dependents of undocumented immigrants to attend three consecutive years of high school in Florida and earn a diploma.
The plan would hold steady the percentage of in-state admissions, about 91 percent of university and community college students.
Undocumented students would compete for the same spots as legal in-state students.
A protest of about a dozen students took place Monday outside Senate President Don Gaetz’s office. Protestors shouted, “One state, one rate.”
Lawmakers have until May 2 to pass a budget.