By Maria Rodriguez, Executive Director, Florida Immigrant Coalition
Today's signing of a Florida law allowing young undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizen children of immigrant parents to pay the same tuition rate as every other Florida resident represents a truly remarkable achievement. It will change the lives of young immigrants like Carlos, who is twenty years old, undocumented, and comes from a family of agricultural workers.
A month ago, Carlos and I were sitting outside the Florida Senate Chamber, waiting for the tuition bill to be heard. As we passed the time, Carlos told me about himself, and admitted that someday he hoped to be a legislator. When I asked him what issues he would champion, Carlos couldn't believe I had asked such a question, "Are you serious? he said, "Poverty, of course!"
Carlos told me about his childhood and what getting an education signified for him. "I grew up dirt poor," he said, and then he recounted the exact moment he realized he wanted to go to college. He was 11 years old and picking tobacco in North Carolina – that's right, only eleven years old. This was after he'd already harvested onions in Florida, and before he headed to Michigan with his family to pick apples. He remembers thinking as he stood in the fields, "This is not for me, there's got to be more." Education was his path to opportunity and that path will now be open to many more students like him in Florida, taking them one step closer to fulfilling their dreams.
It's remarkable how far Carlos and those who fought for this alongside him have come.
The governor who signed this bill is the same Tea Party governor whose administration tried to kick a group of Latinos off the voter rolls and who in 2011 campaigned on bringing an Arizona bill to Florida, which immigrants and their supporters barely, but successfully fought off. About this time last year, he evenvetoed a modest bill easing the way for DREAMers granted deferred action to obtain state driver's licenses, a measure every senator in his own party had approved on a 36-0 vote. Back then, things looked very bleak.
In the end, it doesn't really matter whether Governor Rick Scott's turnaround was driven by a change in heart or a calculated need to court the Latino vote in advance of a contested bid for reelection. We welcome his transformation on this issue regardless of its motive. Governor Scott and some of his fellow Republicans share in the credit for advancing a policy that is long overdue and which will contribute to Florida's economy and vitality. Expanding access to higher education for children in immigrant families will reduce high school drop-out rates, improve educational achievement, reduce disparities and increase diversity in many professions.
Up until now, Florida had been the state with by far the largest number of immigrants that lacked an equitable tuition policy. Until recently, even U.S. citizens were being denied the ability to pay the in-state tuition rate, due to their parents' immigration status. Currently, twenty other states allow undocumented youth who are residents to pay in-state tuition at their colleges and universities. Now, Florida will join those states adding to the momentum to establish tuition equity policies for Dreamers nationwide.
Tonight will be a sleepless night for me, for Carlos, and for many young immigrants, who can now envision victory in future fights for immigrant rights in Florida and, like Carlos, may even have a hand in making the laws to win them.