TALLAHASSEE — His home ravaged by earthquake, 16-year-old Renato Lherisson returned to his birthplace, the United States, to finish high school and earn a college degree.
The Haitian student envisioned studying political science all the way to the doctoral level and maybe joining the United Nations one day. But now he's just hoping to afford one class this semester.
Lherisson is one of many students — the number is impossible to pin down — who have to pay out-of-state tuition even though they are U.S. citizens and Florida residents. It's because they are dependent on their parents, who are not citizens. And in Florida, it's the parents' residency that counts.
A bill that would have extended in-state tuition to those students, if they lived in Florida for at least two years, was voted down Tuesday in a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.
Now Lherisson, a Miami Dade College student who is supposed to pay his tuition bill in a couple of weeks, has to figure out which classes to drop. His mother still lives in Haiti, scraping together wages from her restaurant job to help him with rent.
Miami Dade College charges $105 per credit hour in tuition and fees for Florida residents, $376 for nonresidents. Multiply that by 12 credits per semester and you get $4,523.
"I'm thinking I may have to take just one or two classes each semester until I graduate," said Lherisson, 18. "Whatever I can afford."
It's a heated issue that has come up before and will again.
For several years, former Miami state Rep. Juan Zapata pushed a similar measure, with Sen. Marco Rubio as co-sponsor in 2003 and 2004. Former Gov. Jeb Bush has urged legislators to consider the issue, though he acknowledges the difficulty of balancing the needs of all students in a difficult economy.
At least 12 states offer some form of tuition assistance to children of illegal immigrants.
The Florida law is being challenged in Miami's U.S. District Court by a group of U.S.-born children who, like Lherisson, were denied in-state tuition because their parents are not citizens.
At Tuesday's meeting in Tallahassee, students offered emotional testimony while senators worried about offering unfair advantages.
"The idea was that we're 'punishing the students.' They didn't ask to be born here," committee chairman Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said later. "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."
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill, said he wasn't trying to stir up an immigration debate.
"The intent of this bill, at the end, is always to try to rectify a wrong," Garcia said. "I just want to make sure the students have the same privileges that I did … regardless of their parents' status."
Lherrison found out about the residency rule just as he was submitting his college applications this year. To him, it didn't make much sense.
"I was born in Miami," he said.
He has been working part time as a bus boy in a French restaurant, and he has a little financial aid. But it's not enough to pay for all four classes he registered for this semester: psychology, algebra, music and English.
Tuition was supposed to be paid by Jan. 10, but the school granted Lherisson several extensions.
His last one is up Feb. 13.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected]