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In-State Tuition for Illegals a Long Shot in Florida

October 6, 2011 - 6:00pm

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended his state's policy on offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at a debate in Orlando, it highlighted the stark differences between the immigration policies of Texas and Florida, where a similar proposal has failed year after year.

Both states have legislatures dominated by Republicans, conservative governors, and a large, growing Hispanic population. But Texas approved a policy 10 years ago to allow immigrants who attended a Texas high school for three years prior to graduation, regardless of legal status, to pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges.

Called the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors) Act after a similar federal proposal, 13 states have now approved policies that permit children who were brought here illegally to obtain in-state tuition if they attend high schools in their state.

But in Florida, a similar proposal never gained full approval by the Legislature, despite repeated attempts over the last 10 years. There were several close calls between 2000 and 2008, with the Florida Senate and House both approving it -- but in different years.

"It's a shame," said former state Rep. Juan Zapata, a legal immigrant from Colombia who sponsored the bill when he was in the House. "We pushed it. We tried. Meanwhile, we have all this talent going to waste. It's sad."

Now, the enthusiasm for the policy has waned among many Republican lawmakers, and yet another effort this year by Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, and Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, isn't likely to get very far.

Experts on immigration policy say the failure to embrace this policy can be blamed in part on Florida's unique Hispanic population, nearly a third of whom are Cuban and here legally. United States immigration policy permits Cuban immigrants who reach American soil to become legal citizens.

Add in Puerto Ricans, who are already citizens, and half of Florida's Hispanic population has no problem obtaining legal citizenship and paying in-state tuition.

As a result, many Hispanics in the state don't see a pressing need for a DREAM Act, says Philip Williams, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.

"For Cuban-Americans, it has not been that important of an issue because of the special accommodations immigrants from Cuba have received in the United States," Williams said. "It's not a burning issue as it is with the Mexican-American community in places like Texas."

While most Republicans favor cracking down on illegal immigration and enforcement of laws to deport immigrants here illegally, ideas about the issue aren't uniform in the GOP.

An attempt this year to pass a law designed to stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants and allow police to detain illegal immigrants more easily failed.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush was supportive of a proposal to allow children brought here illegally to get in-state tuition, and Sen. Marco Rubio has supported a "limited" form of the DREAM Act.

But the emergence of the politically influential tea party movement, which vehemently opposes policies to help immigrants who came here illegally, has helped put a damper on any attempt to pass a Florida DREAM Act.

"The tea party base is very vocally opposed," Williams said.

But Williams said Florida's growing Hispanic population may shift the politics of immigration reform in the state. The growth is not coming from Cubans, he said. Indeed, the latest Census figures show that more Central and South Americans moved to Florida than Cubans over the last 10 years. "Florida's population has become much more diverse," Williams said. "And that has political implications."

Meanwhile, Zapata, who now works as a business consultant in Miami, still fights for the DREAM Act in his own way -- by paying the cost of out-of-state tuition for a university student brought here illegally.

"I saw her on TV and she spoke perfect English and she is studying communications and I thought she was articulate," Zapata said. She spoke about the daunting costs of paying out-of-state tuition, he said.

"I've been paying for her school," he said, though he said it will end soon because she married an American citizen.

"I am not for amnesty," Zapata explained. "But these kids, we made an investment in their education. We spent three years educating them in high school. Let's just not wholesale shut the door on them."

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