Florida will allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and colleges, becoming the 20th state to offer tuition relief to immigrant youths.
The state legislature on Friday passed a bill, expected to be signed into law, which would apply to immigrants who have attended Florida schools for at least three years.
Undocumented students in Florida currently pay out-of-state tuition rates, which at many schools can be three to four times higher than in-state rates.
Still, only a relatively small number of students will have access to in-state tuition. Rather than treating undocumented students as Florida residents, the law instead allows them to compete for a limited number of tuition-fee waivers available to out-of-state applicants.
Despite this limitation, advocates in Florida and on the national level hailed the legislation.
"This is a wonderful development," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "It's not only a benefit for [the students], it's an investment in the future of Florida."
The bill's good prospects in a Republican-dominated state is a mark of efforts by the party's establishment to advance pro-immigrant policies, and to court Latino voters. In Florida, the legislation was sponsored by Republicans in both the senate and the house.
"Increasingly, Republicans have been not only supporting tuition equity but actually sponsoring legislation, as they did in Florida," said Tanya Broder, senior attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "[The Florida bill] certainly provides more evidence that tuition equity in particular, and pro-immigrant policies in general, are not only good policy but also good politics."
Juan Escalante, a 25-year-old activist and graduate student at Florida State University, has long advocated for the bill, and has watched it get scuttled in the legislature on several occasions. Escalante, whose family migrated to Florida from Venezuela when he was 11 years old, will likely benefit from the law, as will his two younger brothers.
"I want this to pass not only for me and my brothers, but also for students all over the state," he said. "They should be allowed the opportunity to become productive citizens, to contribute to our state and our country."
Governor Rick Scott, elected in the anti-immigration tea party wave of 2010, threw his weight behind the bill in a sharp turn away from his past positions on immigration. Scott had campaigned aggressively for a crackdown on immigrants explicitly modeled on Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law, and he has vetoed pro-immigrant legislation as recently as last year, including a bill that would have allowed immigrants access to state ID cards.
Many see this reversal as brazen political pandering to Latino voters ahead of this year's gubernatorial election. Simon, of the ACLU, characterized the move as "flailing around from one extreme to another in order to win reelection."
"The Hispanic vote is really up for grabs and really crucial" in the upcoming election, said Simon. "The governor needs to make sure he doesn't alienate Hispanic voters like he has in the past."