Legislature to confront immigration issues


Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 9:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 9:50 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — The 2013 Legislature will be a testing ground for determining whether state leaders are changing their views toward immigration issues.

Republican legislative leaders, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, have previously taken a hard line against easing restrictions against undocumented residents. But following a presidential election, in which Democrats handily won the Hispanic vote, and calls by some national GOP leaders for a more moderate stance on immigration, state lawmakers will again confront a number of immigration-related issues this spring.

One of the most visible is a plan to allow dependent children of parents who are not citizens to receive in-state tuition instead of having to pay costly out-of-state rates when they attend a community college, state college or university. For university students, in some cases, it means an annual savings of $20,000.

Similar bills have been filed since 2003 but failed.

State Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, who has backed other in-state tuition bills, said the fate of the legislation and other immigration issues remains uncertain when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March for their 60-day annual session.

“The rhetoric has softened but when the rubber meets the road, we'll see in this session,” Soto said.

Bolstering chances for the tuition legislation this year is a ruling by a federal judge last fall concluding that the state's practice of making students who were born in the U.S. but whose parents were illegal immigrants pay higher out-of-state rates was unconstitutional. The state declined to appeal the ruling.

Soto said the legislation would bring state law in line with what the judge has already ruled.

“We often codify the subject of opinions to assure there is no confusion on it,” Soto said. “It makes for a more orderly administration of justice.”

Last year, the Senate Higher Education Committee rejected a tuition bill when the panel deadlocked on the measure, which would have allowed U.S.-born students to pay in-state rates if they had graduated from a Florida high school that they had attended for at least two years.

“They didn't ask to be born here. But on the same token, the other part that bothers me is, why would we give favor to children of illegal aliens over children of legal out-of-state, longtime American citizens? That just wasn't right,” said former Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, who left the Legislature in November.

Several tuition bills already have been filed and one of the debates will be whether the provision should be broadened beyond the court's ruling. Soto said he favors legislation limited to the judge's ruling, with the idea the state could consider expanding it in the future to other students — such as those that may qualify for citizenship under a potential “Dream Act.”

Savings for students would be substantial. An analysis of a Senate tuition bill last year showed in-state college students paid $2,987 a year in tuition and fees versus $11,082 for out-of-state students. At the university level, the difference was $5,363 for in-state students and $25,237 for out-of-state students.

But granting a tuition break for the children of illegal immigrant families would also result in a revenue loss for both the state college and university systems. Soto said he is still waiting to hear about the potential impact of the issue on some of the schools near his district, including the University of Central Florida and Polk State College.

More than a dozen states have adopted similar in-state tuition policies for students with undocumented parents. Supporters say it is in line with a 1982 federal court ruling that held students in those families were guaranteed a right to have a kindergarten-through-high-school education.

Opponents have criticized the policy, saying it “rewards” families that have come to the country illegally.

The issue was a factor in the Republican presidential primary, drawing heat for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose state was one of the first to back an in-state tuition policy for the students in illegal immigrant families.

Soto said he favors the legislation for students who are U.S. citizens because “it's the right thing to do.”

“They shouldn't be burdened with the sins of their parents,” he said.

Some observers believe the Republican Legislature will change its approach to immigration issues, given the rise of Hispanic voters and the Florida's growing diversification.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said she expects House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who comes from the Tampa Bay region, to take a lead on that approach.

“He comes from a part of the state that is very diverse and he is well aware of the demographics and how it affects the Republicans,” she said.

She also said he is “in tune” with the message that is coming from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miaimi, and former Gov. Jeb Bush, two GOP stalwarts who have urged their party to take a more inclusive approach to immigration issues.

But MacManus said some issues, like the tuition bill, could meet opposition for other reasons, including concern among lawmakers about the growing cost of education and issue of providing breaks for some students but not others.

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