TALLAHASSEE — Driven by her dream of becoming a doctor, Mariana Castro won a coveted spot in the neurobiological sciences program at the University of Florida.
But one thing still stands in her way.
A native of Peru who came to the United States illegally as a child, Castro doesn't quality for in-state tuition. It doesn't matter that she has lived in Florida since she was 10, or that she has temporary legal standing under a federal program for young immigrants. She must still pay the $28,548 in tuition and fees charged to out-of-state students, more than four times the amount charged to Florida residents.
"If this continues, I will have to consider dropping out," she said.
Castro is taking her case to Tallahassee. She and other UF students are lobbying for proposals that would extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented students.
While the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature has rejected similar bills for the past decade, there is reason to believe this year might be different: Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford has pledged his support.
"I know this issue brings strong opinions, particularly in my party," Weatherford told the Times/Herald. "But I think it's right. It's got my support."
With Weatherford's blessing, the proposal is likely to gain traction in the House.
State Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican who chairs the Education Committee, expressed "strong concerns" with the bill. "But if it is a priority for Speaker Weatherford, it's got our attention in the Senate," he said.
Other factors are driving the debate in Florida.
Both Florida International University and Miami Dade College recently started granting partial tuition waivers to students who participate in President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program allows young adults brought to the country illegally before their 16th birthday to delay deportation for at least two years.
At UF and the University of South Florida, student leaders are pressing their trustees to adopt similar policies.
Even the national conversation has changed, especially as Republicans seek to broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters. Last month, Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey signed a bill making his state the 17th to offer in-state tuition to certain undocumented students.
"We're seeing tuition-equity measures find bipartisan support," said Tanya Broder, a senior attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "In some cases, the proposals have been introduced by Republicans. If Florida came on board, it would be joining states like Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas."
Try, try again
Former state Rep. Juan C. Zapata, R-Kendall, first filed legislation addressing tuition for undocumented students in 2003, when he learned that his campaign manager's immigration status was keeping her from finishing her degree at Miami Dade College.
His bill died that year, as did a similar bill he filed in 2004. Subsequent attempts to get the language tacked onto other bills went nowhere.
"It was super-frustrating," Zapata recalled. "People didn't want anything to do with it. It was obvious to me that the political current was becoming very emotional, and had gotten disconnected from any sort of logic."
Dwight Bullard, a former Democratic state representative from Miami, took over the effort in 2011.
"My bill was a reaction to what was going on in Arizona," said Bullard, now a state senator, referring to legislation that would bar undocumented immigrants in Arizona from driving in the state and enrolling in schools. "If they were going to take the stick-style approach, I figured we should try the carrot."
But the proposal never got a hearing. Others like it died in 2012 and 2013.
To outside observers, the Legislature seemed uninterested in moving on the issue. The Senate even failed to act on a 2013 proposal to offer in-state tuition to U.S. citizens whose parents are undocumented immigrants — something already required under a state Supreme Court ruling.
When Bullard filed the bill for a fourth time in November, some observers deemed it dead on arrival.
They didn't account for what was happening on the ground.
In the spring of 2013, FIU became the first university in Florida to offer partial tuition waivers to DACA-approved students. The waivers made tuition commensurate with the in-state rate.
"We are about access and this is a small change we can make to provide access to more qualified students right here in our community," FIU President Mark Rosenberg said when the announcement was made.
Miami Dade College quietly followed suit in the fall.
Word spread quickly on other campuses.
Students at the University of Florida formed Gators for Tuition Equity. The group, as well as the progressive Students for a Democratic Society and the immigrants' rights group CHISPAS, began organizing rallies and petition drives.
University administrators had an outside attorney review the issue in November. The lawyers determined UF could not grant in-state tuition or tuition waivers to DACA students.
"President (Bernie) Machen has long supported the tenets of the DREAM Act, which provides for in-state tuition for certain undocumented students," Assistant Vice President for Media Relations and Public Affairs Janine Sikes wrote in an email. "At this time, state and federal law prohibits UF from extending those benefits."
The student activists were undeterred. On Nov. 12, the Student Senate approved a resolution supporting in-state tuition for undocumented students.
That same night, University of South Florida graduate student Christopher Cano stood before his Student Senate with a nearly identical resolution.
The timing was pure coincidence, Cano said. Neither group knew about the other's efforts.
Cano, who is of Cuban descent but was born in the United States, said he drafted the resolution as a matter of fairness.
"When I found out that FIU took the initiative to offer in-state tuition to students who qualify for DACA, I asked, why can't USF do it?" Cano said. "I was sure we could show that the USF policy needed to be changed. I know students who are undocumented. They are as Floridian as I am."
Convincing the Student Senate was not as easy as Cano assumed it would be. "Once we got to the debate, it got heated," he said.
The measure passed by a vote of 35-9.
Back in Gainesville, the student-led movement pushed forward.
In early December, University of Florida Board of Trustees Chairman C. David Brown II said he supported the students' efforts and pledged to study the issue further.
Then, just before the holiday break, the Faculty Senate issued a statement of support: "Be it resolved that the Faculty Senate of the University of Florida supports in-state tuition rates for undocumented students who have graduated from Florida High Schools, and supports adoption of a local policy of Tuition Equity by the University of Florida Board of Trustees at such a time as the Florida State Legislature authorizes it."
The UF student activists prepared to fight in Tallahassee.
Similar conversations are taking place across the country.
At least six states will be considering in-state tuition bills this year, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, introduced federal legislation that would provide $750 million in need-based student financial aid to states that provide "equitable in-state tuition rates" to undocumented students.
But opposition remains strong in several states.
Arizona, Indiana and Georgia bar undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And Alabama and South Carolina prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges and universities.
Mike Cutler, a former senior special agent for the INS and senior fellow with the group Californians for Population Stabilization, says offering in-state tuition to undocumented students provides an incentive for illegal behavior.
"What we keep on doing is creating more competition for American students and American workers," Cutler said. "To my thinking, that doesn't make sense."
On a cold morning in January, Mariana Castro drove to Tallahassee for a press conference supporting the Florida proposals. She spoke to the media flanked by two dozen other University of Florida students and a handful of Democratic lawmakers.
"I want to become a doctor," she said. "I want to further my education. But I can't."
It is hard to tell how Florida lawmakers might vote on the proposal in an election year.
Legg, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he still has doubts.
"Anytime you give someone legal benefits, you have to think about what kind of precedent that is setting," Legg said. "We also have to ask: Is this a state or a federal issue?"
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is also an unknown. A spokesman for Scott, who is running for re-election, said the governor would review the bill when it reaches his office.
One lawmaker has his mind made up.
Speaker Weatherford said he has observed "a glaring inconsistency in the way we treat children who live in Florida."
"The federal government requires us to educate all children in the state of Florida, regardless of their immigration status," he said. "But when some of those children get to college, we pretend they are no longer Floridians."
He added: "This is a personal decision that members of the House will have to make. But my button will be green."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.