Two dueling bills in the Florida House of Representatives take aim at undocumented immigrant students and their ability to afford a college education — one would make university tuition more affordable for students without citizenship, while the other could make higher education prohibitively expensive for them.
House Bill 923 was filed February 10 by Democratic Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, whose district includes parts of Broward County. Woodson's bill would amend Florida statutes to make undocumented students who attend Florida high schools eligible for state financial aid at state colleges and universities.
Right now, under a 2014 law, undocumented students who attend high school in Florida for three consecutive years before graduating are eligible for a waiver of out-of-state tuition, meaning they can pay the same tuition costs as Florida residents. The out-of-state tuition rate at state schools in Florida can be three or four times the rate state residents pay.
But that law, Florida Statute 1009.26, excludes undocumented students from receiving the state aid residents qualify for. For example, undocumented students cannot apply for Florida Bright Futures, the popular merit-based scholarships funded by the state's lottery system.
House Bill 923 aims to remove that exclusion and give immigrant students the opportunity to apply for state scholarships.
Woodson's bill could potentially strengthen Florida's economy by giving all students who live and work here the same opportunities to advance their education, says Ted Hutchinson, Florida director for the pro-immigration advocacy group FWD.us.
"We're talking about students who have lived here, and we've already invested in them," Hutchinson says. "This is leveling the playing field for our neighbors and friends who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans."
New Times was unable to reach Woodson for comment.
Florida lawmakers are also considering a bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard County that would repeal the section of Statute 1009.26 that benefits undocumented students. His House Bill 6037, filed this January, would explicitly require them to pay out-of-state tuition, making Woodson's bill moot.
"I don't think passing [Statute 1009.26] was ever a good idea," Fine tells New Times.
Fine says that as the state seeks to cut costs to offset the economic toll of COVID-19, he'd rather get rid of a subsidy for "foreign students" — the undocumented students in Florida — than cut services to "duly legal Florida residents."
The way Fine sees it, the state is subsidizing out-of-state tuition waivers for undocumented students because in-state tuition is lower than the actual cost of educating a student.
According to data from the Florida Board of Governors, which manages the state university system, the total waiver of out-of-state tuition fees for non-Florida residents was $22,320,620 for the 2019-20 school year. Nearly all of that — $19,159,263 — was waived for non-U.S. residents.
Hutchinson, the pro-immigration advocate with FWD.us, argues that the tuition waiver is not a cost to the state, because the tuition the students do pay is revenue that universities wouldn't otherwise have.
"People try to frame this as some free giveaway, but they're not getting free tuition. The school doesn't get the money either way if the students don't attend," Hutchinson points out.
Without the out-of-state waiver, Florida International University (FIU) senior and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient Ivan Vazquez says, he wouldn't be able to afford college. Vazquez came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 13 and attended his first two years of college in Central Florida, where he paid for classes by working as a cook.
"With out-of-state tuition costs, I would never even be able to dream of going to college. It would be so detrimental, I wouldn't be able to afford it," he says.
Vazquez pays for schooling at FIU with TheDream.US scholarship, which is meant for financially needy DACA recipients. One of the requirements for the scholarship is that students be eligible for in-state tuition at their school of choice. Without the out-of-state waiver, TheDream.US scholars in Florida may no longer be eligible for the scholarship.
Asked about a possible path for DACA recipients, Fine suggested they go back to their country of origin to finish their education.
"I feel terribly for the kids over the position their parents put them in, but the state didn't put them in that position," Fine says. "They can probably get in-state tuition where they're from."
Fine also argues that owing to their legal status, these students are "not Americans and that benefits ought to go to "legal" Floridians.
For undocumented students like Jensy Matute Guifarro, who recently graduated from FIU, Fine's argument is misinformed and a blow to people like her who live in an in-between state of national identity.
"We came here for a reason. If our parents wanted us to have the schooling of our home country, we wouldn't be here," Matute says.
Matute, who is 22, came to Florida from Honduras when she was 2 years old. She's a DACA recipient who has only gone to schools in the U.S. and says she wouldn't know how to adapt to schools back in Honduras.
"It's sad because you're in this state of limbo where you weren't born here, but you weren't raised there. You can't claim any of them," she says.
Fine's bill is in the House Post-Secondary Education & Lifelong Learning Subcommittee. Woodson's bill is awaiting committee assignment.
Across the U.S., Florida has one of the highest percentages of undocumented immigrant students in higher education. Of the estimated 454,000 undocumented students in postsecondary education across the nation, 15 percent live in Florida, and they make up about 3 percent of the state's higher-education student population, according to the Florida College Access Network.