Knoxville students impacted by failure of Tennessee immigrant tuition bill

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KNOXVILLE (WATE) – State lawmakers voted down a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Tennessee colleges. The vote failed in the House Education, Planning and Administration Committee by a vote of 6-7 on Monday.

With dreams of furthering her education at the University of Tennessee to study law, Karla Cruz made the two and a half hour journey to Nashville to share her testimony and watch each representative cast their vote.

“I moved to Knoxville when I was three years old. My earliest memories are driving down Cumberland Avenue and watching the college students walk to class. I’ve always asked my parents ever since I was a kid, is that where I’m going to go to school?” said Cruz.

Republican Rep. Mark White received backlash along the way for sponsoring the bill in the first place.Previous story: House panel votes down Tennessee immigrant tuition bill

“I’ve gotten emails that say I’m a California liberal, that I’m a scumbag, and I’m a conservative Republican and here’s the reason why. I believe this is the right thing to do for our state,” said White.

“What are they living for? What are they working for? Why are they studying so hard at school every single day to learn English while they’re learning algebra and history? What can we tell them that we as a community? Are [we] helping them succeed if we aren’t creating these opportunities for them?” asked Claudia Caballero with Centro Hispano De East Tennessee.

Those opportunities are unattainable for many currently. Per the University of Tennessee’s website, one semester of undergraduate tuition for 12 credit hours is $6,362 for an in-state student. That number more than doubles to $15,572 for out-of-state students, which is what undocumented students would have to pay to further their education as it stands now.

“The United States Congress has not addressed this issue since I’ve been an adult. For the last 30-plus years they have done nothing. There is no pathway, and people say why don’t they become naturalized citizens? There is no pathway,” said Rep. White.

White says 13,000 undocumented kids are enrolled in local K-12 systems across the state of Tennessee. For each one, $10,000 a year is spent to finance their K-12 education, indirectly posing the question if we’re going to spend that money on educating them, why not allow them to further their education at a cost they can afford?

“We can’t give up. These children have been here since they were a year old or two years old when their families brought them,” said Caballero. “They’re American.”

WATE 6 On Your Side reached out to several East Tennessee lawmakers who voted on the issue.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who voted against the measure, said, “I represent the people of the 21st House District and they were overwhelmingly against the bills.”

“They’re in our high schools, they are our neighbors and they pay Tennessee taxes for a significant number of years and that to me has always been the benchmark for in-state tuition,” said Rep. Harry Brooks.

Rep. Eddie Smith, who also voted no on the bill, said, “Immigration policy was a major platform of both parties in 2016 and I think we should give the new administration and Congress [a chance] to fix our broken immigration system before we act as a state on issues related to immigration.”

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