State Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) and State Rep. Mark White (R-Chattanooga) have broadened the scope of the 2017 version of the in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students bill they have introduced to the current session of the Tennessee General Assembly.
The 2015 Gardenhire/White bill that would have given in-state tuition to illegal immigrant students was restricted to grantees of Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
The 2017 version of the bill now applies to illegal immigrant students classified in the “Unaccompanied Alien Child” (UAC) category of immigration status.
In his much publicized radio meltdown with WWTN’s Ralph Bristol on Friday, Sen. Gardenhire described an illegal immigrant his bill would provide in-state tuition benefits to as “somebody that’s got a 4.0 average, was the valedictorian of their class.”
But some UACs who would potentially be eligible for these taxpayer funded tuition breaks are not exactly the model citizens Gardenhire described.
In 2013, sixteen year old Edwin Mejia, a UAC from Honduras, was transported to Tennessee and released into the custody of his brother, an illegal immigrant living north of Nashville in Madison, Tennessee. The following year the two brothers moved to Nebraska where Edwin struck and killed 21-year old Sarah Root while he was drunk and street racing in his truck. Root had just graduated from college. Mejia posted bond and left town.
He is currently on the “Wanted List” of the Office of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security.
Had Edwin stayed in Tennessee for at least two years, graduated from a Tennessee high school and registered to attend a “state institution of higher education,” he would be eligible for in-state tuition under the 2017 version of Gardenhire/White bill.
While the 2015 Gardenhire/White bill that was limited to illegal immigrants in the DACA program passed the Senate, it failed in the House, coming up one vote short of the constitutionally required 50 vote minimum.
Before the Senate Education Committee passed SB1014, the 2017 version of his bill that extends in-state tuition privileges to UACs like Edwin Mejia, Sen. Gardenhire noted that this year’s version of the bill deleted any prior references to DACA requirements. The fiscal note to his bill, confirms however, that SB1014 “[e]xempts undocumented students from paying out-of-state tuition.”
As currently written, the bill passed by the Senate Education Committee last week and is scheduled in the House subcommittee, broadens its application to any and all students in Tennessee who have attended school in Tennessee for the two years immediately prior to graduation from high school that can be a Tennessee high school, completing a GED or HiSET from any state approved institution or organization, or completing high school in a Tennessee home school. A student would also have to be already attending a state institution of higher education or registered to start.
Given the explicit statement of the fiscal note, the bill would apply to any student who crossed the border illegally whether with or without an adult. One group of illegal border crossers that have been transported to Tennessee are classified as “Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC).”
As defined by federal law a UAC is:
“a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States; has not attained 18 years of age; and, with respect to whom, there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody.”
During the 2014 UAC border surge that brought 1,294 UACS to Tennessee, Holly Johnson, director of Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees which operates the refugee resettlement program in the state, admitted that her agency helps link UACs to their family members in Tennessee.
Eben Cathey, speaking on behalf of the TN Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), explained further, that the UACS were not simply “getting dropped off. They’re getting placed with their mom, dad, aunt or uncle.”
In 2015, the UAC arrivals to Tennessee dropped to 765 but increased to 1,354 in 2016. Arrival numbers stopped being reported in January 2017 which at that point in time included 687 arrivals to Tennessee.
Overall, reported data shows that the majority of UACs come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The overwhelming majority of arrivals are boys between 15 – 17 years old.