Undocumented TN students rally for lower tuition

Undocumented students from across Tennessee came to Legislative Plaza Tuesday to try to convince lawmakers to give new life to a bill that would slash their tuition at public colleges, reports The Tennessean.

Wearing placards that described their career aspirations — some said they were future educators or entrepreneurs — more than 100 students chanted their demand for tuition equality on the steps of War Memorial Auditorium. Without it, some of them said, the prohibitive cost of higher education would keep them from pursuing their dreams.

Under state law, undocumented immigrants who want to go to public colleges must pay out-of-state rates that are often two or three times higher than those offered to Tennessee citizens.

A bill that would have given some undocumented students in-state tuition last year won support from Gov. Bill Haslam and dozens of lawmakers, including some conservative Republicans who had been vocal opponents in the past. The bill (SB612) ultimately failed by one vote in the House of Representatives, where critics said such a change would give undocumented students an unfair advantage over U.S. citizens.

But the students gathered Tuesday, who had been recruited and trained to share their stories by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, hoped lawmakers would bring the bill back to the floor before the session ends later this month. They held about 50 meetings with lawmakers in hopes of winning over opponents and resuscitating the bill’s chances.

“Students’ stories have been what have moved legislators, or moved the community,” said Eben Cathey, the spokesman for the coalition. “When you hear their stories you understand we’re talking about the hopes and dreams of the next generation of leaders.”

Rep. Mark White, the Memphis Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, acknowledged that election year politics might make passing the bill a challenge. But he said he remained optimistic about its chances to come back to the floor with the votes necessary to become law.