Offering illegal immigrants in-state tuition would encourage more illegal immigration into Tennessee, says state Sen. Joey Hensley.
Hensley (R-Hohenwald) was one of only two senators on the Senate Education Committee to vote against the Tuition Opportunity Bill on March 22.
In an interview with The Tennessee Star, Hensley said that if the bill passes, more illegal immigrant families would likely move to the state to establish residency to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
“It encourages people to be here illegally when we let them obtain benefits,” Hensley said. “We have laws about legal immigration and people need to abide by those laws.”
Hensley said many of his constituents in his rural district are strongly opposed to the bill. He also opposed the bill in 2015, when it passed in the Senate but failed in the House by only one vote.
Currently, at least 18 states allow illegal immigrant students to receive in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Three states—Arizona, Georgia and Indiana—specifically prohibit in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants, and two states—Alabama and South Carolina— bar them from enrolling at any public post-secondary institution, the NCSL reports.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that K-12 schools must accept all students regardless of immigration status. The ruling has not been applied to post-secondary education.
Advocates of the Tuition Opportunity Bill in Tennessee argue that it would encourage more illegal immigrants to continue their education after having been welcomed in K-12 schools like any other student. The differences between in-state and out-of-state tuition are significant. Currently, yearly tuition and fees at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville total $12,724 for in-state and $31,144 for out-of-state.
Illegal immigrant students are not eligible for federal Pell grants or the state’s free community college program which relies on federal grants. However, Hensley said that if the bill passes, activists would then likely push for illegal immigrants to become eligible for other benefits to help with college expenses. “I’m sure that will be next,” he said.
“I feel for the children, but we have to hold the parents responsible,” Hensley said. “I definitely don’t think we should pass this bill. I will continue to speak out against it and vote against it on the floor.”
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) was the other senator voting no on the bill when it was before the Senate Education Committee. He did not respond to requests by The Star for comment.