MIAMI — A group of employers, students and community leaders expressed alarm Thursday over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' proposal to reverse a law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college and university tuition.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a bid for president, has proposed reversing the 2014 measure as part of a package of legislation cracking down on illegal immigration.
“It never occurred to me in 2014 that we would be convening again to deal with the issue of in-state tuition,” Eduardo Padrón, former president of Miami Dade College, said Thursday at a news conference in Miami.
The news conference was organized by the American Business Immigration Coalition, or ABIC, a bipartisan group that advocates for immigration reform.
“This is an issue of fairness and common sense and it’s good for our economy. If you put roadblocks at a time when there is great need in fields like engineering, doctors, nursing, it’s an ill-advised and ill-conceived idea," said Padrón, a former board chair of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
About 40,000 students enrolled in higher education in Florida are considered undocumented, with about 12,000 eligible for DACA and about 28,000 ineligible, according to the Higher Education Immigration Portal. Each year about 5,000 Florida students who do not have permanent legal status graduate from high school in the state. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, offers young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children temporary protection from deportation and permission to legally work.
The law making in-state tuition available to Florida students who lack legal immigration status, also known as Dreamers, was signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican now in the U.S. Senate. Although it was opposed at the time by conservatives in the Legislature, it was backed by a number of Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez, then in the Florida House of Representatives.
While some Republicans who backed the law have been silent on the issue, Scott has criticized DeSantis' proposal as “unfair."
He recently told reporters in Tampa that "it’s a bill that I was proud to sign. … It’s a bill I would sign again today.”
Florida is one of 23 states, along with Washington, D.C., that allow students without permanent legal status who attended high school in the respective state or Washington, D.C., to pay in-state tuition.
In-state tuition and affordability for Dreamers has been backed by moderate Republicans and the business sector, as well as Democrats and immigrant groups who argue that expanding educational opportunities is better for the overall economy.
“Florida would only be handicapping itself by taking away in-state tuition rates for undocumented young people that the state has already invested in for their K-12 years," Mike Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners and co-chair of ABIC, said in a news release.
"The whole point of making postsecondary education accessible to them, aside from basic fairness and decency, is to facilitate their going into the fields where Florida most desperately needs future workers," Fernandez said. "Not to mention that the more skilled they become and the more they earn, the more they’ll put into state and local tax revenues, not to mention the economy overall."
DeSantis and other Republicans have shifted significantly on the issue of immigration since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 on hard-line immigration positions.
"We work really hard to make higher education affordable for Floridians, and we’re proud of that. We have the most affordable higher education in the country," DeSantis said at a news conference last week. "We have had inflation. The costs have changed. If we want to hold the line on tuition, then you've got to say, you need to be a U.S. citizen who lives in Florida. Why would we subsidize non-U.S. citizens when we want to make sure we want to keep it affordable for our own people?"
Asked for comment on the criticisms, DeSantis' office referred to the governor's previous remarks. The office did not immediately respond to a request for any data or research showing the effect of the students’ paying in-state tuition on rising tuition costs.
Supporters of the 2014 law say many students who do not have legal status would not attend at all if they were not given the price break.
Murilo Alves, 25, is a medical school student who came from Brazil when he was 3 years old. He is enrolled in DACA, which allows young people who qualify to work and study in the U.S. The permission is temporary, has to be renewed every two years and is being challenged in court by Republicans.
Alves paid in-state-tuition for his undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University, and is now a first-year medical school student at Nova Southeastern University.
Alves credits Florida's current law for allowing him to pursue higher education.
"It was very difficult to get here, but I’m very grateful. The important part is I would have not been able to do any of this if it weren’t for in-state tuition, that was crucial to get to where I am right now," he said.
"I’m extremely grateful that we had that benefit. I’m hopeful now that by us sharing our stories that we can prevent this legislation that Governor DeSantis is trying to pass," Alves said.