TALLAHASSEE — 2013 may finally be the year for the college-bound children of undocumented immigrants.
On Wednesday, a House panel approved a bill granting in-state tuition to teenagers who are U.S. citizens, but whose parents are undocumented. Historically, those students have had to pay out-of-state rates to attend Florida's colleges, universities and technical schools, even if they were born and raised in the state.
The bill, which has been killed over and over again in past legislative sessions, still has a long way to go before becoming law. But there is no denying that the proposal has newfound legs. House Speaker Will Weatherford expressed support for the idea this week, and lawmakers from both political parties are pushing similar proposals in the Senate.
The changing mood in Tallahassee parallels a recent shift in the national immigration debate. Republicans, looking to broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters, have softened their stance on immigration issues. What's more, some party leaders, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, are pushing for a path to citizenship for foreign nationals who entered the United States illegally.
"The stars are aligned," said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican who chairs the higher education committee in the Florida House. "It's the first time in history that we see forward movement toward bipartisan immigration reform with Sen. Rubio and others. … We want to be able to work in tandem with that (effort)."
In Florida, the conversation revolves around access to higher education.
For decades, public colleges and universities have approved in-state tuition rates only for students whose parents were U.S. citizens and Florida residents.
Last year, a federal district court ruled that Florida could not deny in-state resident status to a U.S. citizen based on his or her parent's immigration status. State lawmakers want to add the provision to state statute.
In several bills currently being proposed, students would have to prove they were born in the United States and attended high school in Florida to be considered for in-state tuition. Their parents' immigration status would not matter.
The idea isn't new to the Florida Legislature. A similarly drafted pitch by Sen. Rene Garcia, a Miami Republican, died unceremoniously in the Senate education committee last year. A House panel killed a similar proposal.
This year's bills have strong support early in the process. One bill from Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican, has already garnered a long list of bipartisan co-sponsors.
The bill that won a nod from the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday was drafted by the panel itself, meaning it is a priority among House leaders.
"It is a positive step to provide access to all of our students," House Minority Leader Perry Thurston said.
Immigration advocates, however, have criticized the bill for not going far enough.
Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat, suggested tweaking the bill to let undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition, but only if they attended a Florida high school for at least three years. The students would also have to file an affidavit with the college stating plans to legalize their immigration status.
"They will go on to have careers in various fields from architecture to engineering," Rodríguez said. "Yet, they are not eligible for in-state tuition along with the other students they are graduating with."
Sensing he wouldn't win the support of the panel, Rodríguez withdrew the amendment. He and Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, are sponsoring separate bills to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students, but neither is likely to pass.
Rodríguez said he would continue working with House Republicans.
The proposals affecting U.S. citizens, however, are likely to sail ahead.
The best bellwether may be Weatherford. Earlier this week, the Wesley Chapel Republican said U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants have long been "left behind."
"If you're born in America, you're an American," Weatherford said. "And to hold any other view completely contradicts everything that our country was founded upon."
Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.