Tennessee House GOP group attacks bill granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented high school graduates

By Andy Sher / Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Republican opponents of a bill granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented Tennessee high school graduates, brought to the U.S. by their parents who crossed illegally, charged Monday the bill is both too costly and unconstitutional.

Critics, meanwhile, chanted “no hate, educate” in support of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, in the Senate.

Accompanied by 15 or 16 fellow House GOP members, Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, said “it’s time to end this two-tiered society in which Americans who work hard and pay their taxes are pushed to the back of the line behind people who broke the law to come to our country.”

Matheny said Tennesseans must show their birth certificates, Social Security cards and other forms of identification to provide they are “eligible for any benefits. Yet, some legislators think these laws should not apply to illegal immigrants. They are wrong.”

The lawmaker acknowledged the students’ position is “unenviable” and “not their fault.” But, he said, “if they truly want the full rights and responsibilities of being an American citizen, they must first take it upon themselves to become a citizen.”

Proponents say that is impractical, given students face a lengthy, arduous and uncertain path to legal status.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who introduced the House in-state tuition bill took issue with Matheny’s criticisms.

“I totally disagree. We’re not talking about any immigration issues. We’re talking about something that benefits individuals, which is a Republican issue. Anyone who wants to get up in the morning, work hard to better their families and themselves, we should be all over that.”

White has his bill scheduled to be heard in a House panel on Tuesday.

Asked by a reporter about Gardenhire’s assertion the bill helps undocumented students obtain degrees that will turn them into productive taxpayers who are net contributors to the state and less likely to need public services , Matheny replied, “theoretically that’s true.

“But,” he added, “the vast majority of citizens in this state have asked us not to do this. We were elected by them.”

Some undocumented students already attend Tennessee’s public colleges and universities but are treated as out-of-state students and pay triple the tuition rates of in-state residents. Matheny said state taxpayers “subsidize roughly 50 percent of the cost for in-state tuition.”

But Gardenhire argues students and their parents are among those taxpayers.

The bill is permissive for officials in the state’s systems of higher education. Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, is scheduled to have the House version up in committee on Tuesday.
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