Legislation introduced will let many undocumented immigrants who came to Tennessee as children qualify for in-state tuition.
Jazmin Ramirez wants to open a small business one day, but for now that hope is on hold.
Ramirez left Zacatecas in central Mexico when she was 7 years old, joining her mother and a sibling as they moved to Minnesota and then to Nashville. Last year, she graduated from Glencliff High School in Nashville with the goal of enrolling at Austin Peay State University.
Instead, the 19-year-old South Nashville resident helps her family make ends meet by baby-sitting familyfriends.
"I want to help people in my community by offering jobs," she said. "Then I realized I would have to pay three times more than my friends for access to higher education."
Legislation introduced in the General Assembly might change that by letting many undocumented immigrants who came to Tennessee as children qualify for in-state tuition to the state's universities and community colleges. The bill, filed last month by a pair of Chattanooga Republicans, suggests lawmakers may be cooling on bills that emphasize deportation and warming to reforms that offer a chance to stay in the country.
If Senate Bill 1951 were to pass, Tennessee would join 19 other states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. But it would be the first in the Southeast to do so, reversing a trend toward legislation designed to encourage undocumented immigrants to leave the region.
Supporters say the bill would boost the state economy by encouraging students who currently have to skip college to enroll. They also link the bill to Gov. Bill Haslam's push to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certified technical skills.
"This is good for the kids in our state, and it's going to be good for graduation rates (and) our economy," said Eben Cathey, communications coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Students must meet academic standards
The bill sets two requirements for undocumented immigrants: They must have attended school in Tennessee for at least five years before graduating from high school, and they must meet state academic standards for a Hope scholarship.
Undocumented immigrants still wouldn't be able to receive the Hope scholarship even if the bill were to pass. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, the first-term GOP lawmaker who introduced the measure, said the requirement is meant to build support for the bill.
"These are the serious kids that we ought to reward and allow them to get in-state tuition," he said.
A related bill would qualify the American-born children of undocumented immigrants for in-state tuition.
Those who meet the standards could apply for in-state status to any University of Tennessee campus or any school in the Tennessee Board of Regents system of six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 technology centers. A TBR spokeswoman said her organization believes the bill could help the state boost graduation rates and attract good students.
SB 1951 is scheduled to come up for discussion Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee. State Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, has filed a companion measure that could be debated later in the session.