Up for a fourth try to award a statutorily classified “state or local public benefit” to illegal immigrants in Tennessee, Rep. Mark White continues to tell his legislator colleagues that his bill is about education and not immigration even though the state law White needs to change was “based on Congress’s asserted interest in ‘remov[ing] the incentive for illegal immigration provided by the availability of public benefits.’”
Tennessee’s “Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act” (EVEA) passed in 2012, classifies in-state tuition is a state benefit. The EVEA requires that:
…every state governmental entity and local health department shall verify that each applicant eighteen (18) years of age or older, who applies for a federal, state or local public benefit from the entity or local health department, is a United States citizen or lawfully present in the United States in the manner provided in this chapter.
The EVEA 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.’”
The federal law which limits the authority of state governments to extend public benefits to illegal aliens is part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, otherwise referred to as “The Welfare Reform Act” signed into law by President Clinton. The law included very specific provisions addressing immigrants’ eligibility for public benefits defined in part, as:
any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments or assistance are provided . . . by an agency of a State or local government or by appropriated funds of a State or local government.
Another federal law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) prohibits state colleges and universities from providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants “on the basis of residence within the State” unless the same in-state rates are offered to all U.S. citizens.
Both laws, among others are designed to disincentivize illegal immigration, which creates a fiscal burden on state taxpayers woven through a variety of public services, including education.
Federal law does permit states some latitude to grant public benefits to illegal aliens by passing state legislation. However, every grant of a public benefit for this purpose constitutes sanctioning illegal immigration to and within that state.
The White/Gardenhire in-state tuition bills accomplish granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens in Tennessee by taking in-state tuition out of Tennessee’s current law that includes it as a “state or local public benefit.” Should this bill be passed, it may well set a precedent for providing additional state benefits to illegal aliens.