Why Florida Senate may approve in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants

A perennial bill in the Florida legislature, this year Republicans are now backing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants going to state colleges and universities. What changed?

After years of fierce debate, the Florida Legislature seems about ready to allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition rates even if they are in the country illegally.

While some Republicans have sharply criticized the idea as "pandering" to Hispanic voters, Gov. Rick Scott and other top GOP legislators have embraced the proposal during this election year.

The legislation earlier this session appeared in trouble due to the sharp divisions among Republicans. But state senators on Tuesday quietly waived their rules to clear a final vote on the measure later this week.

The bill, if passed, would allow students in the country illegally to pay the same tuition rate as other residents if they had attended a Florida school for at least three years prior to graduation. Currently the in-state tuition rate is one-quarter of what is paid by out-of-state students and those who are undocumented.

Senate President Don Gaetz, who is opposed to the bill, said no one objected to the move because a majority of senators want to debate the legislation.

"That doesn't mean everybody is for it, that means everybody wants to have a chance to debate this issue," Gaetz said. "That's the way it ought to be in a representative democracy."

The move has buoyed the hopes of those who have been pushing for the in-state tuition measure for several years.

"Had this passed in 2005, when I graduated from high school, I would have been able to immediately go to college and my life would have been a very different life," said Tampa resident and veteran immigrant activist Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez. "I can imagine what this will mean for thousands of undocumented youth. It has happened only with the personal sacrifice and leadership dozens, if not, a few hundred undocumented across the state that have been pushing for this bill for 10 years."

The debate on in-state tuition for students living in the country illegally has been perennial in Tallahassee. Similar bills have passed the House and Senate, but never in the same year. This election year it has emerged as a top priority for some Republicans, including House Speaker Will Weatherford. When it appeared the bill had stalled Scott called on Senate Republicans to consider the bill.

If the bill passes as now expected it is a dramatic turnaround from just three years ago when Scott was urging legislators to pass measures to crack down on immigration. Scott during his 2010 campaign even criticized one of his opponents for not supporting the measures.

But Scott's change comes during an election cycle when Hispanic voters are expected to play a pivotal role.

When asked why legislators were taking a different stance from 2011 Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera would only say: "All I'm focused on is what's happening this year."

But bill sponsor Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he wasn't surprised since the Senate rejected some of the tougher immigration measures that were under consideration early in Scott's term as governor.

"If you think about it, the Senate came down against the tea party on immigration three years ago," Latvala said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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