Tennessee lawmakers lent a sympathetic ear Tuesday to legislation that would qualify the children of undocumented immigrants for in-state tuition — even if the children themselves are not legally in the United States.
A House committee approved a bill extending in-state tuition to high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants, and a subcommittee opened debate on a second measure that would let any undocumented immigrant who has attended school in Tennessee for at least five years go to college as an in-state student.
Both bills are far from passage, but the debates appeared to signal a major shift in tone for the Tennessee General Assembly, which only a few years ago passed laws meant to encourage undocumented immigrants to leave the state.
Supporters of the bills said they share the frustration of hard-liners on immigration. But they argued that Tennessee will be best served by encouraging young adults who were brought to the United States as children to go to college.
"All we are saying is if you are a student who has gone to school in Tennessee and are now ready to go to college to be a more productive citizen, you can pay in-state tuition," said state Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis.
The two pieces of legislation are moving separately through the General Assembly, but they are linked.
White's measure, House Bill 1929, amends state law to say that children can be considered Tennessee residents, even if their parents are not. Under current Tennessee law, the children of undocumented immigrants have not been able to get in-state tuition because their parents do not have legal residency in Tennessee.
That bill already has begun to advance in the Senate and it was approved Tuesday by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. Backers say it brings state law in line with federal law, which already counts them as citizens of Tennessee under the 14th Amendment.
The second measure, House Bill 1992, would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who were born abroad but came to the U.S. as children. Members of the House Education Subcommittee took up the bill for the first time and appeared to be willing at least to give it consideration.
"This is hard for me," the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said at a hearing Tuesday in which he choked back tears. "Let me tell you, you don't think I'm not taking heat back in my community. … I want to do the right thing."
No one on the committee said they plan to vote against the measure, but the bill may still get tripped up by a law passed during the previous round of debate over immigration.
The Save Act, enacted in 2012, requires state agencies to check the immigration status of anyone who applies for public benefits. A representative of the University of Tennessee system said officials there have interpreted that to mean they cannot accept undocumented immigrants as students.