Florida Gov. Rick Scott is backing a bill that would allow qualified Florida students to pay in-state college tuition even if they are in the country illegally.
Scott told The Associated Press that he supports the legislation sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, because it would also prevent state universities from being able to raise tuition rates above the amount annually set by the state Legislature.
"I'm appreciative of the fact that he's concerned about the debt that our students are ending up with and that tuition has been growing too fast," Scott said.
Scott's decision to back the legislation is a turn from 2010, when he took a hard line on immigration issues and supported having Florida enact a law similar to those of other states that bar the in-state benefit.
But at least for the past two years, Scott has been staunchly opposed to tuition hikes and vetoed one proposed by the Florida Legislature.
In his State of the State speech, Scott called for taking away from universities the ability to raise tuition above the rate set annually by legislators. Right now, state universities can raise tuition up to 15 percent a year. Legislative leaders have proposed lowering the annual limit to 6 percent. House Speaker Will Weatherford said that universities should retain some flexibility to raise tuition higher.
The debate over in-state tuition for certain students who entered the country illegally has been a perennial one in Tallahassee. Similar bills passed the House and Senate but never in the same year. But this year the measure appears to be gaining broader support.
Weatherford has come out for granting in-state tuition to Florida high school graduates who have entered the country illegally, but Senate President Don Gaetz has said he is opposed to the proposal.
At least fifteen other states have passed such laws, with another seven considering them this year. The trend reflects immigrant advocates' increasing focus on state legislatures as Congress fails to make any headway on national immigration reform. It also highlights lawmakers' growing recognition of the influence of Latino voters.
The main House bill would cover all Florida youth who attended at least three years of high school in the state and apply for college within two years of graduation — regardless of their immigration status. It also would provide in-state tuition to veterans and would require students to be U.S. citizens to receive state financial aid.
Currently, those students pay out-of-state fees that can run as much as $17,000 more per year more than those charged Florida residents.
The current legislative proposals would cover beneficiaries of a 2012 order from President Barack Obama's administration that allowed hundreds of thousands of youth brought to the United States before their 16th birthday and living in the country illegally to temporarily remain. Colleges and universities nationwide are increasingly offering in-state tuition to these students, but in Florida, only Miami-Dade College and Florida International University have signed on.