Carlos Reyes, a graduate of Murfreesboro Oakland High School’s Class of 2017, would be in his second semester at MTSU majoring in business administration – if he could afford it.
Instead, because he’s among the thousands of undocumented immigrant students in Tennessee, he had to drop out because of the high cost of out-of-state tuition – more than $27,500 compared to in-state tuition of $8,948 – and go to work.
He’s not giving up, though, taking part-time jobs and working with the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition and United We Dream in Washington, D.C., to push the Dream Act, paving a pathway to citizenship for some 1.8 million young people brought here years ago without the required documentation.
Many are staying in the nation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program executed by former President Barack Obama and given tentative approval by President Donald Trump.
A Trump extension for immigration reform was set to expire March 5, and Congress has been unable to pass legislation to extend or alter the program.
The Supreme Court last week declined to take the case, however, meaning the program is extended until the case can work its way through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California and, likely, back to the Supreme Court.
Reyes was 1 year old when he arrived in America. But he proudly recalls his school years, from prekindergarten through Oakland High.
“One of the things that always touched me was I stood up every morning for the Pledge of Allegiance, and they don’t even consider that,” Reyes says of those opposing the Dream Act. “It’s something that we’ve learned to be committed [to], we’ve learned to be faithful to not only our families but to this country that we’ve grown up in … and seen everything since pre-k.”
Reyes calls his situation “heartbreaking” and “difficult,” yet he remains undeterred.
Renewing the battle
Joining Reyes in the ranks of the undeterred are state Rep. Mark White and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who are sponsoring legislation this session, after being turned back the last two years, to allow Dreamers such as Reyes to attend Tennessee colleges and universities on in-state tuition.
White, a Memphis Republican, says he hoped Congress would solve the situation since Trump offered a path for DACA students in exchange for spending billions of dollars for a wall at the Mexican border and immigration reform. Congress, however, appears bogged down.
In light of that, White and Gardenhire are trying to shift the debate to thousands of students in Tennessee who grew up here, graduated from the state’s high schools or are attending them but will have a hard time going to college because of the high cost. Their bill would allow those with three years at a Tennessee high school and intentions of pursuing citizenship to attend college on in-state tuition.
“I’m a big believer that education means everything in a person’s life,” says White, explaining the nation hasn’t done anything for 30 years to handle the thousands of young people who came to the country with their parents.
“We’re still not doing anything now, so I want to protect the children that are innocent in this situation and say when you graduate from a Tennessee high school that you’ve grown up in, we’re going to let you go on to school and continue to pay your way with in-state tuition, something you can work and pay for.”
White and Gardenhire contend young people can work part time and earn $9,000 in a year to pay tuition, but when tuition costs $30,000, they come out of the state’s K-12 system and hit a “brick wall.”
The main wall, other than the one Trump wants to build, is a state law prohibiting illegal immigrants from receiving a state benefit, and in-state tuition is considered just that. In fact, if it weren’t for the law former state Rep. Joe Carr – whose Lascassas home is a short drive from Oakland High School – passed a few years ago, the Legislature wouldn’t be haggling over the matter, White explains.
Carr recently sought a return to the Legislature to stop his work from being reversed, but he was handily defeated by Shane Reeves in January’s Republican primary for the open District 14 Senate seat.
White expects to bring the matter to the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee he chairs in March. Meanwhile, he’s lobbying fellow lawmakers and says he has the backing of the state’s Chambers of Commerce, Farm Bureau and military branches.
Gardenhire’s version of the bill was set for action this week in the Senate Education Committee, where it’s more likely to get a good reception. In fact, Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, points out versions of the bill previously passed the full Senate with a two-thirds majority before falling in the House.
He has high hopes again and says he is looking for Gov. Bill Haslam to “throw his weight behind it.”
“I think attitude has changed on that, not just here, but in the public overall. There’s a few hard-core anti-immigrant groups, but their influence is waning, and people are more tolerant, more acceptant of the children,” Gardenhire adds.
He says it’s been a “long battle” and looks forward to passage in the House where the dynamics could be different this year with a number of people leaving the Legislature instead of running for re-election.
The usual hurdle
One of the votes against White’s bill will come from state Rep. Dawn White, a Republican who used to teach in the Murfreesboro City Schools system. She opposed his bill last year in the subcommittee and plans to do the same this year.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong. We will be flooded with students that are illegal here if we do this bill,” explains White, who is sponsoring a resolution encouraging Congress to build a wall at the Mexican border. She’s also running for the 13th District Senate seat being vacated this year by Bill Ketron, a Rutherford County mayoral candidate. Her opponent is Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess, who also is leaving his post to run for Ketron’s seat.
White notes two states bordering Tennessee don’t even allow illegal immigrants to register for college, so that could encourage entire families there to move to the Volunteer State so their children can get in-state tuition. Such a shift would put a strain on the state’s K-12 system as well as its universities, she points out.
“They still can go to college. They have to pay out-of-state tuition, so we’re not barring them from the college,” White says. “We are saying they’re not getting in-state tuition.”
House Majority Leader Glen Casada takes a similar view.
“There’s limited resources, and where do we spend those limited resources?” Casada asks. “Do we spend it on natural-born citizens or do we spend it on whoever, do we have open borders, and [spend it on] whoever?”
How in-state tuition qualifies as a benefit is questionable since students would still be paying nearly $9,000 a year to go to school. Most people consider benefits to be items such as free lunches and food stamps.
And since the state depends heavily on sales taxes for funding, Reyes and his family pay the same in taxes as non-immigrants.
Of course, if Congress were to take action and give Dreamers and DACA students a pathway to citizenship, Casada acknowledges Tennessee wouldn’t have any choice, since it accepts federal dollars for a variety of programs.
Unfortunately, this argument gets caught up in the national fiasco over immigration, which has seen Republican views go up and down like the stock market over the last 20 years.
In fact, the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition maintains the focus on in-state tuition in Tennessee is quite different from the “overarching” immigration debate in Congress.
Offering a bit of an olive branch, TIRRC Co-Executive Director Stephanie Teatro says the governor and state legislators appear to be focused on policies this session helping the state’s economy and improving the quality of life for more Tennesseans.
“We believe there is broad and growing support in the General Assembly to allow all Tennessee high school graduates the opportunity to pay in-state tuition at a state college or university. At a time when increasing college attainment and helping more Tennesseans earn a degree is a top priority, advancing proposals that allow affordable access to higher education is just common sense,” Teatro adds.
Gov. Bill Haslam hasn’t changed his stance since supporting the bill last year, either.
“I still think it makes sense for both students, as well as the future of Tennessee. We have people who have been going to high school here, been in our school system, and they’re gonna be part of our workforce,” Haslam says. “I think the more we give them a chance to be educated to prepare for the challenges of the future the better.”
Some people might have seen one of the greatest movies ever made, “Jeremiah Johnson,” the tale of a U.S. soldier (Robert Redford) who escapes life below and moves to the Rocky Mountains to become a mountain man.
In one of the key parts of the movie, Johnson is leading soldiers through the mountains to find a group of stranded settlers.
As they’re riding, he asks, “Who won the war?” They respond, “Which one?” He says, “The one against the president of Mexico.”
In the movie, nobody answers, and 175 years later we still can’t reach any solutions, seemingly at war with a people just south of the border. The result is people such as Carlos Reyes continue fighting, but they’re using logic instead of a .50-caliber Hawken rifle.
Sam Stockard covers the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.