SF College demurs as students plead for immigrant waivers


Jackson Sasser, president of Santa Fe College, talks with students, administrators and advocates about the cost and availability of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students during a meeting at SFC to discuss the topic, in Gainesville Tuesday Oct. 22, 2013.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 10:13 p.m.

A discussion about the possibility of Santa Fe College offering in-state tuition to students who entered the United States illegally elicited an emotional response from students but few answers from administrators.

About 50 students, educators and community members came to SF College on Tuesday to take part in the discussion, part of a series of forums about immigration reform.

“It’s really relevant for our state,” Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs Vilma Fuentes said.

Florida has the third-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the United States but few protections for those who come into the country as children.

The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2011, sought to provide a path to citizenship for those children, but it failed in Congress.

In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals made it possible for the children of undocumented immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation and get jobs and driver’s licenses, among other benefits. It does not grant legal status or provide a path to citizenship.

However, DACA status has allowed students at some colleges and universities to pay in-state tuition.

At least 12 states -- including California and Texas, the two states with larger undocumented populations than Florida -- allow students who grew up in the state but don't have federal legal status to pay in-state tuition.

Earlier this year, Florida International University became the first Florida public college to offer in-state tuition to DACA students. Miami Dade College soon followed suit.

But the University of Florida and SF College have asserted that state and federal laws prohibit them from offering in-state tuition to non-legal residents.

“If there were a way, we would do it,” SF College President Jackson Sasser said repeatedly during Tuesday’s discussion.

But, he said, “FIU and the others, we don’t know how they’re doing that legally.”

SF College general counsel could not immediately be reached for a legal opinion.

Several student groups held a protest at UF last week in favor of granting in-state tuition waivers to undocumented students. Like SF College students, non-legal residents attending UF must pay out-of-state tuition, regardless of how long they’ve lived in Florida.

At the protest, UF Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Jeanna Mastrodicasa said that while the university supports undocumented students’ rights, the school’s hands are tied by the law.

Administrators requested a review of state and federal laws regarding the issue. The review had not been made available as of late Tuesday.

“This is a complicated issue, and we have to let our outside counsel conduct a thorough analysis of the laws,” UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes wrote in an email Tuesday. “We won’t reach a conclusion until that’s done, but indications so far are that federal law prohibits universities from offering in-state tuition or out-of-state tuition waivers to certain undocumented students and that Florida doesn’t presently have a state law that provides for an exemption.”

So far, neither MDC nor FIU has been punished for providing in-state tuition to DACA students.

During Tuesday’s discussion, half a dozen students came forward to tell their stories of academic success throughout public school, only to hit a wall when it came time to apply for college.

Elis Daniela Zamora, 19, was brought to the U.S. from Venezuela by her parents when she was a young child. A DACA student, she moved to Gainesville to attend SF College but had to drop out because the $1,300 out-of-state cost per class was more than she could cover on her own income.

Now working full time at UF, she implored Sasser to consider offering in-state tuition to DACA students. Florida residents pay only about $300 per class at SF College.

“I am dying to go to school, and I can’t,” Zamora told him. “I simply can’t afford it.”

Likewise, Nancy Perez, 22, graduated fifth in her class from Williston High School in 2010. Her parents brought her here from Mexico in 1999, when she was 8 years old.

Also a DACA student, Perez has a driver’s license and a job as a paraprofessional at Williston Middle School, helping students whose second language is English.

Advocacy groups helped her raise about $2,000 so she can start classes at SF College in January, but that will cover only two classes. She’s unsure about her future after that.

“We’re all here with DACA cards,” she said of other students in her situation. “Yeah, they provide temporary relief, but we want to study; we want to go to college and contribute to the economy. We’re Americans. We feel like we’re Americans.”

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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