State Rep. Raumesh Akbari grew so emotional she couldn’t speak. On the verge of tears, the Memphis Democrat started to talk about a high school from her Shelby County district with a large number of undocumented immigrant students.
She went there two years ago to tell students about the Tennessee Promise, but she could give these young people, the children of immigrants who came here illegally years ago, nothing except hope for a piece of legislation to help them fulfill their dreams.
Akbari couldn’t finish that thought for fear she would lose control in a recent House Education committee meeting as legislators considered a bill enabling all students who graduate from Tennessee high schools to pay in-state tuition to attend state colleges and universities.
The bill would change the rule requiring non-citizen students to pay out-of-state tuition, which ranges from two to three times the cost of in-state tuition and fees.
“I was thinking about a school in my district with very smart kids, salutatorians and valedictorians, and all they want is a chance. And to me the legislation is not giving anything away, it’s just giving an opportunity,” Akbari says.
Not only was Akbari thinking about the testimony of Knoxville Powell High School graduate Karla Meza, who described the difficulty of paying $10,000 a semester to attend Pellissippi State, she heard the words of Rep. Johnnie Turner, who battled segregation in Memphis.
She also thought of her own mother, who as a child could go to the zoo only on days when black children were allowed to go to the park. In addition, the words of Republican state Rep. Mark White, who sponsored the legislation, rang true, and she thought about his political courage as he implored lawmakers to think about whether they’re making a positive difference in people’s lives.
Yet even after White, Turner and several others urged the committee to put these 13,000 to 25,000 students on equal footing with their peers, the committee voted 7-6 against the legislation.
The result left the group of young people, mainly Hispanic immigrants who would have had a better chance to afford college, crying and hugging each other in the hallway of the Legislative Plaza. Akbari left the committee room immediately that day, still unable to speak.
It took her another day before she could talk about the situation without breaking down.
“We’re in a position to help people, and in my mind, we’re not doing it. And I haven’t heard a compelling reason that’s not steeped in some sort of prejudice or hate to vote against it,” she says.
White, a Memphis Republican who has been working on the bill for years, nearly pushed it through two years ago on the House floor.
“I believe when you kill hope in a person, you kill a person’s future,” White explains.
He thought he would be able to send it out of the education committee this year but didn’t get help from a co-sponsor of two years ago.
Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican, took a 180-degree turn on the measure after his first term and voted against it.
Smith says he voted for House Bill 675 in 2015 granting in-state tuition to students brought here illegally by their parents with the understanding all students who participated would be enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program.
“After two years of discussion, an election in which I knocked on roughly 31,000 doors in my district, and the election of President Donald Trump, I decided to vote against HB0863,” Smith says in a statement.
“Immigration policy was a major platform of both parties in 2016, and I think we should give the new administration and Congress (an opportunity) to fix our broken immigration system before we act as a state on issues related to immigration.”
Considering President Trump is planning to spend billions of dollars building a wall at the Mexican border, his view on illegal immigration doesn’t bode well for these students.
Yet, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently indicated the Trump Administration, including Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, say they believe undocumented students should “continue to focus on their studies and pursue their educations. The administration is very supportive of states setting their direction, and I would say that would be consistent here (for in-state tuition), too.”
While that’s hardly a ringing endorsement, it’s much nicer than what a group of conservative legislators had to say a day before the vote.
Fifteen to 20 House members, led by Rep. Judd Matheny, gathered in front of the chamber doors to stop these students from getting in-state tuition rates.
In theory, Matheny agrees, these students could have a better shot at a college education by paying in-state tuition and become more productive members of society.
“But the vast majority of citizens in this state have asked us not to do this. We were elected by them, and therefore, we are implementing their wishes, which is not to provide these benefits and to ask them to go and get citizenship,” explains Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican.
“There is a way for them to become citizens, and it may be arduous. It may not be convenient, but they need to start that process. I have relatives in my family that went through the process. It took years, but they were dedicated enough to become an American citizen, to become properly assimilated,” he adds.
“We’re going to demand that of these people. Once again, the people you see up here were elected on this platform. We weren’t elected to come up here and compromise on this issue. We were elected to come up here and say no benefits to illegal immigrants.”
Another of those standing with Matheny, Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican who voted against the bill, pointed out Rutherford County already builds a school a year to cope with a growing population.
“We’re gonna become a magnet in the Southeast if we pass this legislation,” White says.
The bill would bring “an influx” of students and cause property taxes to increase, she argues. It must be noted Rutherford County is a magnet for people already, and its population is projected to be 460,000 in 10 to 15 years.
Key legislative leaders taking the side of Matheny and Co. include Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.
“It doesn’t make sense to have that many illegals in the state of Tennessee,” Norris says. “I voted against it last year. I was prepared to vote against it again this year. It’s problematic, but it’s problematic from a number of perspectives.”
Asked what Tennessee should do with these students since they’ve been here for years, Norris acknowledges the state can’t send them away. But instead of discussing potential solutions, he cites a decision by the Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to file an amicus brief joining a host of other states in opposition to a federal judge’s decision in Hawaii against Trump’s travel ban. He notes it is “interesting” though different from the matter involving undocumented children.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally says very little about the situation other than to say the Senate version of the bill is likely dead for the year given the House action. Oddly enough, it is sponsored by a Republican as well, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga.
Taking their shots
Opponents of the bill blame President Barack Obama’s administration for opening the borders. They fail to consider, though, that employers have been inviting Hispanic immigrants here for years to take advantage of cheap labor.
That’s an argument for another day. The question is how to treat these students who’ve lived here for 15 to 20 years, long before Obama took office.
Considering the state’s funding formula for higher education is based on retention and graduation, not the sheer number of bodies enrolled, several lawmakers point out the state would not be giving these students a benefit or taking a classroom seat away from veterans. One of the arguments in opposition is that illegal immigrants should receive no state government benefits.
UT-Knoxville’s in-state tuition and fees total $19,307 compared to $37,982 for out-of-state, making it hard for regular folks to go there. Incidentally, the university supports the legislation.
To reach the point they could even attend a state college, Tennesseans have paid tens of thousands of dollars for them to go from kindergarten through 12th grade. It doesn’t make sense to drop them right when they’re on the verge of becoming productive people, lawmakers say.
“Why are they being treated different for no fault of their own. These are students who simply want an education and to be treated equally. I think it is a travesty that this bill was defeated in committee,” adds Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat.
While Gov. Bill Haslam is championing the Drive to 55, an effort for 55 percent of Tennessee adults to hold a degree or certificate by 2025, the state is putting up a serious hurdle for these students.
“I fail to see why this governor couldn’t move a member from his own hometown whom he supported for election to get him to support a bill he purports to be passionate about. Again, it’s another failure on this governor’s part to make this happen for Tennessee families,” Clemmons says.
Yet another Democrat, Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, says he believes Tennesseans are “better” than they’re showing with this outcome.
“There are times that this Legislature fails to reflect the spirit of Tennessee, and I think the failure of the in-state tuition bill is one of the cruelest manifestations of that imaginable,” Yarbro says.
People rallying outside the House and Senate chambers immediately after the Matheny group’s press conference make some strong points in the legislation’s favor as well.
“It’s a Republican-sponsored bill. It shows beautifully how Democrats and Republicans can work together to improve the state and improve the citizens in this state ,” says Jennifer Vannony, an advocate of largely liberal causes with Power Together Tennessee.
“For the extreme conservative side to try to block it or to have their opinions against it is not only harmful to the students themselves but is harmful to the state in general.”
Beth Joslin Roth of the Safe Tennessee Project points out these students and their parents have been paying sales taxes for years in Tennessee.
“If they’re going to be in our state, and they want to get an education, and they’ve completed the requirements of high school, they should have access to in-state tuition, a better chance at becoming a contributing member of society and having success later in life,” Roth points out.
White and Akbari both say they’re concerned about creating an under-class. And Tennessee already has thousands of young people in the 18-to-25-year-old range who aren’t doing anything but hanging out and getting wasted. Meanwhile, people such as Karla Meza are having to take a semester off from colleges such as Pellissippi to put together enough money to enroll.
When she found out she had to pay out-of-state tuition while applying for Tennessee universities, she didn’t understand.
“I was really, really confused because I felt like a Tennessean,” she says.
Meza dreams of enrolling at the University of Tennessee Law School, and she adds she won’t let the state’s rules or the Legislature stop her. If only the rest of Tennessee’s young people had the same attitude.
Akbari says she wishes the committee’s members could have closed their eyes that day and listened to Meza speak. They wouldn’t have known if she was Latina, undocumented or otherwise, she explains.
“She just sounds like a Tennessean, a typical teenager. But when they open their eyes, they just can’t get past that,” Akbari says, noting the outcome fails to represent “Tennessee values.”
Or does it?
When people are “hung up” on immigration law, as White says is too often the case, the only thing that can be done is to change the law.
In this situation, it could take another generation, much as it took decades to get rid of Jim Crow. And sometimes you have to wonder if he is gone.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.