NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A push to offer in-state college tuition rates to students whose parents brought them into the country illegally is picking up unlikely momentum from some Republicans in Tennessee, a deeply conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump and his tough stance on immigration.
If the lawmakers succeed, Tennessee would follow the lead of Washington, D.C., the only other local government to pass such an ordinance since Trump took office in January. Twenty other states already allow the in-state tuition.
To sell the idea, the bill's supporters have had to maneuver carefully, steering the debate away from illegal immigration policy whenever possible.
Instead, they are promoting the measure as an economic driver and an educational opportunity for students who didn't have a choice about crossing into the United States at a young age. They say the students are innocent victims of decades of political deadlock on immigration at the national level.
“I'm all for building the wall and U.S. sovereignty, closing our borders,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican and a bill sponsor. “But we didn't, and now we're damaging innocent people.”
At the state Capitol, dozens of students whose parents crossed into the U.S. illegally and brought them along have gone lawmaker to lawmaker to share their personal stories. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam took time to meet and snap photos with them last month, and he has thrown his support behind the bill.
A House and Senate panel each have passed the proposal so far, and another House committee was scheduled to vote on it Tuesday.
Two years ago, when President Barack Obama was still in office, the proposal passed in the Senate and came one vote shy of passing in the House. The Senate may wait for the House to act first this year, Republican Speaker Randy McNally said.
Trump has spoken of mass deportations and building a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Nonetheless, White is optimistic the Tennessee bill has a chance.
“I'm just trying to protect Tennessee in the long run, because they're here,” White said. “And if anybody thinks that we're going to send children who grew up here back out of this country, they're not living in the real world. We need to do what's the next best thing, and that's help them assimilate into our society.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 20 states offer in-state tuition to students who are either in the United States illegally or here under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects them from deportation for two years and lets them work. A half-dozen or so of those states tilt Republican.
The Tennessee legislation would apply to students who have attended a state high school or home school program for two years.
Even if the bill passes, the students would not qualify for federal financial aid. Nor would they be eligible for state programs that offer students free tuition at community and technical colleges, said Ginger Hausser, director of external affairs for the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican and the bill's sponsor in the Senate, notes that the state has already invested in the students by paying for their K-12 education, and that some have lived in Tennessee as long as their counterparts who are U.S. citizens. Yet they are required to pay three times what other in-state students pay to attend college, he said.
The bill's opponents are framing their arguments around illegal immigration. The same legislature continues to advance a bill that would cut funding to immigrant-protecting sanctuary cities.
“I don't think anybody in this room blames (the students),” Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, said in a committee meeting. “But, as a representative, I owe the state taxpayers the right to say, ‘Why are we subsidizing illegal students?’”
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition policy director, said she is optimistic about the bill's chances amid support from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the governor, and the state Board of Regents, which governs colleges, among others.
“We think that this is a real opportunity to remind people, remind legislators, that even in such a divisive climate we can all come together and agree that educating Tennesseans is important,” Sherman-Nikolaus said.
Elman Gonzales, a 19-year-old who graduated from Sevierville County High School, said he could go back to East Tennessee State University if the bill becomes law. He had to drop out because tuition was $12,000 a semester, temporarily sidelining his hopes of becoming a doctor.
Gonzales, who was brought to Tennessee at 2 years old when his parents moved from Honduras, said he was “genuinely surprised” at the bill's movement so far, “considering the political atmosphere.”
Telling lawmakers their stories one-on-one has made a big difference, Gonzales said.
“That to me is going to make the most difference because that shows them directly that these students are being affected by this, and how much their lives can change by voting yes on this bill,” Gonzales said.