Desperate to give illegal alien students in-state college tuition, Sen. Todd Gardenhire’s bill SB2263, removes publicly subsidized reduced college tuition from the current state law definition of “state or local public benefit.”
SB2263 would amend Tennessee’s “Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act” which defers to the federal law definition of a “state or local public benefit.” A 2017 opinion issued by Attorney General Herb Slatery notes that this federal law was “based on Congress’s asserted interest in ‘remov[ing] the incentive for illegal immigration provided by the availability of public benefits.'”
But the federal law does permit states to grant public benefits to illegal aliens through state legislation.
The AG’s opinion was in response to a 2017 bill sponsored by Gardenhire and Rep. Mark White who is also committed to securing in-state tuition for students unlawfully present in Tennessee. White has sponsored the House companion bills to Gardenhire’s Senate bills. Their 2017 bill would have allowed the governing boards of state colleges and universities to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrant students. The bill passed the Senate Education Committee but failed in the House Committee in a 6 – 6 tie vote. White “preserved” the bill by rolling it to the 2018 session instead of seeking a vote to reconsider it last year.
Slatery’s opinion says that if state legislators want “unlawful aliens” to access a state benefit like in-state tuition, the legislature must “enact legislation expressly making unlawful aliens eligible for public benefits, including in-state tuition.”
The Gardenhire/White 2018 in-state tuition bill combines elements of their former bills. Each of Gardenhire’s bills have passed the Senate Education Committee by a majority vote. Due to the failure of White’s House companion bills only their 2015 bill made it to their respective chamber floors, passing the Senate in a 21 – 12 vote but failing on the House floor by a single vote.
Notably, Speaker Beth Harwell left the House floor during the 2015 bill vote but said later that had she remained in the House chamber, she would have voted against the bill.
White and Gardenhire have deliberately avoided using language that would identify the beneficiaries of their bills as “illegal or unlawful aliens.” Gardenhire prefers to use the politically deceptive terms used by open-border activists of “undocumented” or “children of undocumented immigrants who are brought to this country when they are very young.” White uses terms like “children in a special situation” acknowledging that using accurate statutory terms like “illegal alien,” makes it harder to get support for his bills.
“Illegal alien” is the term used in federal immigration statutes and is the term sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court to refer to individuals who have entered or been brought into the country in violation of immigration laws.
In 2016, White stated that he did not bring an in-state tuition bill that year “out of respect” for his colleagues because it was an election year.
Not so this year, however and should the Gardenhire/White bill succeed this year, it would possibly set a precedent for the next General Assembly to legislate access for illegal aliens to other public benefits.
Tennessee Star / Triton polling consistently shows that Tennessee Republican primary voters are solidly opposed to extending the in-state tuition benefit to illegal aliens. As The Star previously reported:
In the six months between the June 2017 Tennessee Star Poll and the December 2017 Tennessee Star Poll, opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students among likely Tennessee Republican primary voters has actually increased–from 84 percent to 88 percent–while support has decreased–from 11 percent to 6 percent.
Gardenhire’s bill is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, March 7th; White’s bill has not been put on notice in committee yet; their 2017 bills remain viable.