TALLAHASSEE — When the votes were tallied and the last lawmaker had left the room, the young adults wearing the paper graduation caps wept.
Their long-shot hopes of winning in-state tuition for undocumented college students were dashed — at least for this year.
The college-age students had come from different parts of the state to change the law and faced a less-than-friendly Legislature.
With the law of the land still in place, undocumented students must continue to pay out-of-state tuition, which is nearly three times higher than the rates for Florida residents. Financial aid is rare.
A pair of bills in the Florida Legislature would have made things different. The Senate Higher Education Committee defeated the first of the proposals last month. Late last week, the second bill died in a 4-3 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"We've been shelved again," said Leonardo Yepez, an 18-year-old student at Miami Dade College. "We'll keep fighting, though. This isn't just about us. It's about our little brothers and sisters, and all the children who will come after us."
What played out in Tallahassee is part of a larger nationwide fight to fix an immigration system that advocates say punishes children for the acts of their parents. For a decade, immigrants' rights groups have pushed the Dream Act, a federal proposal that would allow undocumented children to obtain permanent residency, either by enrolling in college or serving in the military.
The bill has been criticized for promoting illegal immigration — and has never been signed into law.
Though different from the federal Dream Act, the two Florida proposals were controversial from the start.
The first sought to grant in-state tuition status to Florida high school students who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are in the country illegally. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, was voted down in late January.
The second bill was wider in scope. It would have granted in-state tuition status to students who had attended a Florida high school at least three years, graduated from the high school and registered or enrolled at a Florida college or university — regardless of their immigration status.
Undocumented students would have been required to sign an affidavit stating their intent to become legal residents.
"All I'm trying to do is get back the investment that we have already made in these students so they can become taxpayers," argued Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who sponsored the second bill.
The young adults spent the past few days pushing for the proposal. They had become a familiar sight around the Capitol, their orange graduation caps hard to miss.
After the first bill died, the group staged several sit-ins and held news conferences in hopes of getting their voices heard.
More than a dozen came to testify for the second bill at a committee meeting on Thursday.
Nanci Palacios, 23, recalled her graduation from Durant High School in Plant City.
"Instead of celebrating on my graduation day, I was crying because I did not know what my future was going to be like," she said.
Yepez, who came from Venezuela as a toddler, told the committee his parents feared telling him about his immigration status.
"They were afraid that I would give up, throw in the towel," Yepez said, his voice cracking. "Instead of that, I applied myself even harder and gave it all I could so that one day I could get into college."
The teenager did his part, he said — but is now struggling to pay the tuition for his degree in business administration.
The vote came at the end of a jam-packed meeting. Testimony had to be cut short. There was no time for debate among lawmakers.
Voting for the measure: Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami; Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; and Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
Voting against it: Sens. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine; David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs; Garrett Richter, R-Naples; and Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
When the meeting had ended, the students approached Simmons to find out why he dissented.
Simmons, who taught himself Spanish, responded in Spanish.
"I'm a fan of your culture," he said. "But I can't vote for this bill."
Simmons later explained, in English, that he would prefer to tackle immigration reform in a comprehensive way rather than in piecemeal legislation.
"This is just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Simmons said.
He also said he had concerns about the potential cost to colleges and universities.
Braynon was frustrated by the outcome. "This would have been the fair thing to do," he said. "Their parents pay taxes for them to go to school."
After the lawmakers left, the students gathered in a large circle to regroup.
Some embraced. Others cried. A few took off their graduation caps.
"We're disappointed, but not discouraged," Palacios said. "We're not giving up."
By midafternoon, the orange graduation caps had returned. The young adults were making the rounds in the Senate, already trying to garner support for next year's battle.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]