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Bill would revoke Florida law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition rates

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, answers questions about one of his bills at a meeting in 2014. A new bill filed by Steube would rescind a two-year-old law that allows undocumented students who graduate from Florida high schools to pay in-state tuition when they attend the state's colleges and universities. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published Dec. 1, 2016

It had all come down to the Florida Senate. Years of debate preceded the emotional moment in 2014, when senators finally voted to grant in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students.

"The eyes of America are on us," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told his colleagues. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."

The measure passed, 26-13, a bipartisan victory. Gov. Rick Scott called it "a historic day."

"Just think," he said, "children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

Now, just 21/2 years later, a bill filed by state Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, seeks to erase the provision. Florida's public colleges and universities no longer would have to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented students who attend high schools in the state.

"It is certainly a big issue in my district among my constituents, who were frustrated and upset that the state would allow undocumented illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-supported in-state tuition," the conservative lawmaker said. "So I think it's important to file the bill and have a discussion on it."

Steube said he knocked on thousands of doors in his primary campaign. Without fail, voters asked about two things: the Second Amendment and illegal immigration. He remembers one man in particular, disappointed that after laboring so hard to put his family through college, the state would give undocumented immigrants a tuition break.

"I just don't think it's good public policy for the state," Steube said. "And with the change in leadership and the change in both of the chambers, I think it's a policy that is worth revisiting."

Latvala had little to say about the new Senate Bill 82, which was filed Wednesday.

"First I've heard about it," he said. "I'm out of state, so I really don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to take a look."

Nearly 900 students received the tuition discount in the 2015-16 academic year, according to state figures. The break is substantial. At the University of Florida, for example, in-state tuition and fees for next year come to $6,380, compared to $28,658 for out-of-state students.

Before passing in spring 2014 with significant Republican support, the tuition proposal faced a battle within the party.

Then-Senate President Don Gaetz rebuked the bill in an email to his constituents, incensed that it would aid even those from countries rife with "anti-American violence." And incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his committee wouldn't hear the bill, hurting its chances to become law.

Latvala crafted a strategy in response, adding the language to several other bills going before the panel to keep the effort alive. Student activists also kept the heat on Senate leaders, staging news conferences and pressing for meetings. Scott told reporters he considered the bill a priority.

On Wednesday, the governor's office said Scott will review any new legislation when it makes it to his desk.

Steube, who was elected to the Senate on Nov. 8 after six years in the House, said state Rep. Joe Gruters, another Republican from Sarasota, plans to file a companion bill.

Of current lawmakers who were in the Senate in 2014, or have since moved there from the House, 24 voted yes on tuition waivers and 13 voted no. In the House, 33 yes votes and 15 no votes remain.

Steube said he hasn't talked to Negron or Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran about the legislation, but knowing of their previous opposition gives him hope.

Negron and Corcoran did not return calls for comment.

Steube's bill comes at a time of heated debate about immigration, including on campus. More than 330 college presidents have signed a letter urging President-elect Donald Trump not to follow through on his vow to scrap DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects certain undocumented immigrants from deportation. Several Florida leaders, including Judy Genshaft, president of the University of South Florida System, have added their names in recent days.

Francesca Menes fought for tuition waivers with the Florida Immigrant Coalition in 2014. "Never in a million years" did she expect a repeal effort.

"We can only think that this is something political for him, rather than something that benefits our state," she said.

The benefits of the tuition waivers, unrelated to DACA, are already being felt by young adults who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own, said state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, who sponsored the 2014 bill in the House.

"This really isn't an immigration bill; this is access to higher education," she said. "I for one am focused on empowering families."

She vowed to fight Steube's bill tooth and nail.

"Clearly, in my mind, he's still in campaign mode," she said. "There's a lot of football to be played, and we're in the preseason at this point. Hopefully, at the end of the day we'll prevail."

Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.

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