Legislature to take up tuition for children of undocumented immigrants (w/video)

State Sen. Jack Latvala explains his tuition bill as state Rep. Ed Hooper, left, and St. Petersburg College president Bill Law listen on Wednesday at SPC in Clearwater.
State Sen. Jack Latvala explains his tuition bill as state Rep. Ed Hooper, left, and St. Petersburg College president Bill Law listen on Wednesday at SPC in Clearwater.
Published Feb. 27, 2014

CLEARWATER — The dream is fading, she says. She's a high school senior with an honor-roll transcript and a mouth full of braces. Pink.

She wants to go to college. Celeste Pioquinto, 17, was born and raised in Clearwater, educated in Clearwater except when she went to Seminole Middle for its gifted program. She'll graduate from Clearwater High this spring.

But her parents are not from Clearwater and moreover not from this country. Mexico. She can't get in-state tuition to Florida colleges and universities. Her parents don't make a ton of money. She is the eldest of four children.

The dream is fading.

Few issues before the Florida Legislature this session are likely to garner more debate as an effort to extend in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. The bill introduced Wednesday by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, hits at the intersection of emotion and politics, where a desire to educate Florida's growing immigrant population meets a fear of rewarding illegal entry into the country.

"These children are the children of taxpayers in Florida, who pay our sales tax, who pay our gas tax," Latvala said at a news conference Wednesday at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus. "I just think this is a disparity, a discriminatory issue that needs to go away."

State Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, voiced his support alongside Latvala on Wednesday, though the bill's House counterpart is coming from Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami. Rep. Will Weatherford of Pasco County has put his weight as House speaker behind the bill, as well.

Getting the bill through the Senate will be trickier, Latvala admits. Sen. President Don Gaetz opposes the measure, although he told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau that he expects it will get a hearing.

Gaetz's district in conservative, northwest Florida includes several military bases. And children of military families cannot access in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities if they are residents of other states, even if their parents are stationed in Florida.

"I don't know how I explain to them that … we will subsidize families who didn't play by the rules," Gaetz said.

In a recent informal poll, Gaetz said, 18 of the 40 state senators supported the proposal; Latvala said he had counted as many as 25. "If we can just get a floor vote, I believe we can be successful," he said.

Florida is required to provide a public education for all children through high school. But once the children of undocumented immigrants near graduation, many find that college is out of their reach. Out-of-state fees can cost as much as $17,000 more per year than those charged to Florida residents.

"What do you say to a middle-school student when there's no opportunity to go to college?" asked Stan Vittetoe, provost of St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus.

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Dulce Jimenez, who, like Pioquinto, appeared at Latvala's news conference, said she wanted to become an emergency physician. But because of the cost of out-of-state tuition, that was out of the question. Twenty years old, she's now getting her nursing degree at St. Petersburg College.

"Letting go of your number one dream because of something you can't control is very difficult," she said quietly.

Jimenez said it would be a lie to say her life is bad. She knows other students have it worse. But still. She says, "Craving knowledge and wanting a better future is not a sin."

Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.