Machen adds voice to in-state tuition for unauthorized students
Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.
University of Florida President Bernie Machen said Thursday he was proud of the commitment students have shown in support of tuition equity for unauthorized immigrant students and would join them in their push to change state law so they can pay in-state rates.
"I am impressed with your depth of knowledge and your commitment to the issue, and I am proud that you are part of UF," Machen said after three students spoke to the board of trustees about what they described as the inequity of charging unauthorized students out-of-state tuition.
Several student groups, including Students for a Democratic Society and Gators for Tuition Equity, have been demonstrating on behalf of unauthorized students who must pay rates that are four to five times higher than the state rate.
They've persuaded the Student Senate to pass a resolution in support of legislation that would provide guidelines for unauthorized students who graduate from Florida high schools to receive waivers so they could pay in-state tuition. Student Body President Christina Bonarrigo, who sits on the board of trustees, said she supported tuition equity.
The student groups also are working with the steering committee of the Faculty Senate to pass a similar resolution — one that says faculty would support the board of trustees providing tuition waivers or in-state tuition for unauthorized students after the Legislature has changed the law.
Marc Heft, a UF dentistry professor who is president of the Faculty Senate and sits on the board of trustees, said the resolution had support and predicts it will pass at the Dec. 12 senate meeting.
"We are not asking for a handout," said Liana Guerra, a founder of Gators for Tuition Equity. "We want access to education for all Gators."
Guerra said 65,000 children of parents who brought them to the U.S. illegally graduate each year from high schools nationally, but only 7 percent "pursue higher education because of financial constraints." Allowing them to pay in-state tuition would remove a financial barrier for students who have the grades and test scores to get into the state's universities and colleges, and they in turn would be able to get better-paying jobs and contribute to the economy and society.
Florida trails California and Texas in the number of unauthorized immigrant students, she said, but those two states have had laws providing in-state tuition for unauthorized students for 12 years. She said she hoped the board of trustees would vote to support legislation favoring tuition equity.
Conor Munro of the Students for a Democratic Society said he has received letters of support from most campus student organizations and statements of support from the United Faculty of Florida and the Graduate Assistants United.
"Everyone agrees there is a moral imperative that anyone who works hard" should be allowed to attend state university or college without the financial hurdle of out-of-state tuition, he said.
As the flagship university of the state system, Munro said, other schools will be looking to UF for leadership on this issue, and he hoped it would be "as a beacon of forward thinking."
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012, gives immigration authorities discretion in waiving prosecution of children who entered the U.S. illegally and are pursuing education or military goals.
Florida Board of Governors policy lists several deferred action categories that could allow in-state status for tuition purposes, including parolees, people seeking asylum and refugees. But Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival students are not among those categories.
UF administrators have said they are blocked from changing the tuition for DACA students by state and federal law.
An opinion UF received from outside counsel Foley & Lardner of Miami said the university would be in violation of "well-established federal law" if it were to grant tuition waivers or other tuition benefits to students under the DACA program.
Florida International University officials decided they have authority to grant such a waiver based on their interpretation of the law and recent court rulings. FIU this spring became the first state university to grant non-resident tuition waivers to unauthorized students.
Munro said he understood UF's position that there are ambiguities the Legislature needs to address before any change could happen but hoped the board would issue a statement supporting tuition equity in principal.
Board Chairman C. David Brown II said it was not possible for the board to take action on the advice of outside counsel but that it would study the issue further and discuss it.
"There is a lot of discussion on this issue in Tallahassee and I am fully in favor of it," Brown said. "This is an issue we can spend time on."