Despite endorsements from Gov. Bill Haslam and college leaders statewide, an effort to give undocumented students in-state tuition at public colleges was struck down by a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday.
The bill, which has notched some surprise victories in other committees this year, was killed in the House Education Administration & Planning Committee with a vote of six for and seven against. It was another brutal defeat for students and advocates who have been pushing the bill for several years.
A similar measure failed by one vote on the House floor in 2015.
The Tennessee Board of Regents college system, which has been supportive of past efforts to expand in-state tuition for undocumented students, voted overwhelmingly to support the measure this year. Haslam, who had signaled his support for similar bills, this year posed for photos with undocumented students on the steps of the Capitol and linked their efforts to his other high-profile efforts to boost college enrollment.
Students who entered the country illegally must currently pay out-of-state tuition to attend a public college. Advocates say the out-of-state rates — which can be two or three times higher than in-state tuition — create a barrier for students who grew up in Tennessee. Those students are not eligible for federal or state financial aid.
Twenty other states, including Kentucky, offer undocumented students in-state tuition.
To be eligible, students would have been required to graduate from a Tennessee high school. Many of the eligible students entered the country illegally as young children and call Tennessee home.
Conservative lawmakers took steps this week to ratchet up opposition to the bill. During a news conference hosted by the Conservative Majority Caucus Monday, Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, said he and his colleagues "were elected to come up here and say no to benefits for illegal immigrants."
During emotional remarks before the vote, House sponsor Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said his had gotten phone calls and emails calling him a "California liberal" for supporting the bill. But he said clearing hurdles for students to be able to pay for college was rooted in conservative principles.
"I think this is the best thing to do for the future of Tennessee," he said. "We're just saying if you can work hard and come up with the money to pay the in-state tuition, we're going to give you an opportunity to do so.
"We're gonna hurt ourselves down the road if we've got a sub-class."
Student Karla Meza Cruz, an undocumented student who came to Knoxville as a toddler, traveled to Nashville to observe the vote Tuesday morning. In remarks to the committee, she said her earliest memories were of driving down Cumberland Avenue and watching students walk to class at the University of Tennessee.
Her dream was to go to UT to pursue a law degree, a dream she said was out of reach because of the high price tag of out-of-state tuition there.
"We are here today to fight for our futures, to better our state, to better our families," she said.
Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, said she and her colleagues had "really studied this," but she concluded she had to vote no because she thought the bill would encourage more immigrants to come to Tennessee illegally.
"We will become a magnet in the Southeast if we pass this piece of legislation," she said.
Reach Adam Tamburin at email@example.com and 615-726-5986 or on Twitter @tamburintweets.