Florida high school graduates who are illegally in this country through no fault of their own should pay no more to attend a state university or college than their high school classmates. House Speaker Will Weatherford has come to appreciate the senselessness of the state's discriminatory tuition policy and says he will work to correct it in the coming legislative session. Lawmakers should follow his lead, because fair treatment would benefit both the students and the state that already has invested in their public education.
For more than a decade, advocates for these young immigrants have been lobbying the Legislature in hopes of ensuring that children of undocumented workers who do well in Florida high schools have access to higher education at a reasonable price. Two years ago, a Miami federal court did what the Republican-led Legislature had refused to and said children born in this country to undocumented workers cannot be denied in-state tuition as they are U.S. citizens. But still in limbo are those children born elsewhere who were brought to the United States by their undocumented parents. State law requires them to pay out-of-state tuition, and they do not have access to state or federal financial aid such as subsidized loans.
Now the tide is shifting as some Florida institutions are taking matters into their own hands. Miami Dade College and Florida International University have quietly started charging in-state tuition to those young immigrants who have taken advantage of 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. Now students at the University of Florida and University of South Florida are reasonably advocating for the same consideration.
The better solution remains for lawmakers to change state law — as Weatherford is now pledging to support. He said he will work to get the full House and Senate to vote on a bill that would mirror laws in several other states. Students would have to attend a Florida high school for at least three years and be seeking legitimate immigration status to be able to pay in-state tuition.
Weatherford said it was a constituent and immigrant advocate in Dade City's Tommytown, Margarita Romo, who helped him appreciate both the economic and moral hazards in the state law. And when Congress failed last fall to take up immigration reform, Weatherford said he decided to act before term limits force him out of office in November.
The United States' commitment to public education has long meant that every child in Florida has access to K-12 education. But Florida's higher education policy shortchanges its own investment when it denies the brightest of undocumented students the ability to further their education at the same price as their fellow students and more fully contribute to their adopted home as adults. Weatherford understands that, and so should his fellow lawmakers.