Gov. Bill Haslam said he'd like to see lawmakers revive a bill that would give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition at Tennessee colleges.
The effort suffered its latest narrow defeat last week, when the legislation failed by one vote in the House Education Administration & Planning Committee after a formerly supportive representative flipped on the issue. A similar measure failed by one vote on the House floor in 2015.
"I was disappointed, obviously," Haslam said in an interview last week. "It was a bill that we have supported that we think is the right thing to do."
Twenty states already allow students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. Haslam said he hopes to see Tennessee join those ranks eventually, although he stopped short of expressing optimism.
"When you're for something that loses you obviously hope it has a chance to win again sometime in the future," Haslam said. "Who knows what the environment will be then."
Another bill that would allow college boards to set requirements for in-state tuition could also be revived in the same House committee. Many boards would likely favor offering undocumented students the in-state rate — the Tennessee Board of Regents already voted to support such efforts.
Advocates of the in-state tuition measures, including Haslam, say allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges — rather than the more expensive rates for out-of-state students — would boost attendance and strengthen the state's workforce. But opponents, who pointedly attacked the bill at a press conference last week, slammed any attempt to accommodate people who came into the country illegally, even if they were young children at the time.
Some conservative lawmakers also warned the bill would act as a magnet, encouraging more immigrants to come to Tennessee illegally. Haslam rejected that argument.
"I think this is a bill that addressed people who are here — who have been here, been going to school — and gives them an opportunity," the governor said. "We think them having the option to realistically be able to afford school by paying in-state tuition is good for that individual and, long-term, is good for the state."
Students have been a key component of a statewide campaign to support the bill, led by the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. They have regularly traveled to Legislative Plaza to plead their cases directly with lawmakers.
Undocumented students are not eligible for federal or state-brokered financial aid. Many of them say the added hurdle of an out-of-state price tag takes college off the table altogether.
Last week, when the House committee killed the bill that would give them in-state tuition, students filled the committee room holding placards emblazoned with their career goals. They wept in the hallway after the vote.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, pledged to continue to help those students by pushing the legislation. Students and staffers working with the coalition also said they would continue to fight.
"People are devastated but at the same time ready to work," said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director at the coalition. "In other states, it took a decade — we're still incredibly optimistic."
Jake Lowary contributed to this report.
Reach Adam Tamburin at firstname.lastname@example.org and 615-726-5986 or on Twitter @tamburintweets.
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