College-aged students gathered in the Senate gallery on Thursday, donning orange graduate caps and watched along as a bill to offer in-state tuition rates for the children of undocumented immigrants made a crucial step toward becoming a reality in the Florida Senate, where it was passed by a vote of 26-13.
HB 851, sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nuz, R-Miami,would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay the same in-state tuition rates for college as other Floridians.
"We are helping prepare our young people of all walks of life for the job force for improving our economy," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the Senate counterpart's sponsor, who called the measure "long overdue."
When closing on the bill, Latvala became emotional as he turned to Nuz, noting the importance of her role in the bill since she is the daughter of immigrants.
"The eyes of America are on us, and I think we're setting an example," said Latvala.
Part of the debate on the bill centered around the potential price tag for universities. Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, explained offering in-state tuition would cost Florida universities $49 million, but maintained that colleges would not seek additional funding.
Legislators in favor of the bill said the legislation would give Dreamers the chance to be Americans and ultimately, the opportunity to succeed in life.
If you look at the U.S. Constitution, it doesn't say 'We the Citizens.' It says 'We the People, said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.
Supporters of the bill have been gathering at the Florida Capitol all week, camping out in the rotunda, waving signs and chanting for legislators to pass the bill. Dreamers could save a pretty penny with an in-state rate: it currently costs about 75 percent less than regular tuition.
Despite its passage, the legislation's journey in the Senate has been tumultuous. Although the House counterpart was easily approved, the legislation seemed dead in the Senate after Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, refused to hear the bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"In-state tuition discounts should, in my view, be reserved for legal residents of Florida," Negron wrote in a statement last month. "Florida law does not prohibit students who are undocumented from accessing our state colleges and universities. Once these students favorably resolve their residency status, they could become eligible for in-state tuition."
Negron's refusal made it seem unlikely that the bill would be heard during this year's legislative session. But on Tuesday, the bill received a second chance and was put on the special order calendar for the following day.
Very pleased to announce that the Florida Senate just voted to add HB 851 and SB 1400 to tomorrows Special Order calendar! tweeted Latvala on Tuesday.
In-state tuition has been a hot topic during this year's legislative session. House Speaker Will Weatherford had been a staunch advocate of offering in-state tuition rates for Dreamers.
The bill eventually won the approval of Gov. Rick Scott, who hopped on board in support partially because the bill would prevent Florida universities from raising tuition rates above those set by the Florida Legislature.
The bill now heads back to the House for a final vote, where it's expected to be approved.