State Politics

Bill that would provide in-state tuition for children of non-citizens dies in Tallahassee

TALLAHASSEE -- His home ravaged by an earthquake, 16-year-old Renato Lherisson returned to his birthplace, the United States, to finish high school and earn a college degree. The Haitian student envisioned studying political science all the way to the doctoral level and maybe working for the United Nations. But now he’s just hoping to afford one class this semester.

Lherisson is one of many students -- the number is impossible to determine -- who must pay out-of-state tuition even though they are U.S. citizens and Florida residents. It is because they are dependent on their parents, who are not citizens. And in Florida, it is the parents’ status that counts.

A bill that would have extended in-state tuition to such students, if they lived in Florida for at least two years, was voted down Tuesday in a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.

Now Lherisson, a Miami Dade College student who is supposed to pay his tuition bill in a couple weeks, has to figure out which classes to drop. His mother still lives in Haiti, scraping together wages from her restaurant job to help him with rent.

Miami Dade College charges $105 per credit hour in tuition and fees for Florida residents. For nonresident students, it’s $376. Multiply that by 12 credits per semester, and you get $4,512.

“I’m thinking I may have to take just one or two classes each semester until I graduate,” said Lherisson, now 18. “Whatever I can afford.”

It is a heated issue that has come up before, and will again. In 2003 and 2004, former state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, pushed a similar measure, with then-state Sen. Marco Rubio as co-sponsor.

At least 12 states offer some form of tuition assistance to children of illegal immigrants. The Florida law is being challenged in Miami federal court by a group of U.S.-born children who, like Lherisson, were denied in-state tuition because their parents are not citizens.

At Tuesday’s meeting in Tallahassee, students offered emotional testimony while senators worried about offering unfair advantages.

“The idea was that we’re ‘punishing the students.’ They didn’t ask to be born here,” committee chairman Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said later. “But by the same token, the other part that bothers me is, why would we give favor to children of illegal aliens over children of legal, out-of-state, longtime American citizens? That just wasn’t right.”