Meet the students fighting against a potential repeal of in-state tuition for FL Dreamers

DeSantis earlier announced a repeal in a package of anti-immigration measures, but it has yet to surface in legislation

By: - April 18, 2023 7:00 am

A group of Dreamers and their advocates at the state Capitol in Tallahassee on April 11, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

Britney Ortiz came to Florida as a young child from Mexico. Now, the 20-year-old Orlando resident intends to transfer to the University of Central Florida (UCF) and major in business marketing next semester – though that’s a big “if.”

The if is whether the Florida Legislature will repeal an in-state tuition break for undocumented students, often called Dreamers.

Britney Ortiz. Credit: Mitch Perry.

“Right now the in-state tuition at UCF is about $6,000,” says Ortiz, who is now at Valencia College. “If they get to repeal it, I’ll be expected to pay $22,000, and that’s not including books, housing or transportation.”

Ortiz hopes that sharing her story will move others. “We’re putting a face to the problem actually,” she says.

Ortiz and other students who have benefitted from a 2014 state law granting in-state college tuition for undocumented high school students made the trek to Florida’s state Capitol last week to try to convince lawmakers that a repeal would be a mistake.

“Mostly we’re educating folks,” said Julio Calderon, a Miami resident who graduated from Florida International University in 2019 and who helped coordinate a trip to the state Capitol.

“There are a lot of people who are new to the Capitol, who weren’t here in 2014, so we’re doing the education and letting them know how it’s benefitted our lives. That’s our job to do that here, because when they see the impact that in-state tuition has had in our lives, they’re able to see how continuing the legislation will help the state.”

To qualify for the in-state tuition waiver in Florida, recipients must have a minimum of three consecutive years of Florida high school and have graduated from a Florida high school. Dreamers are not eligible for state or financial aid.

In question, though, is, will lawmakers push through a potential repeal of in-state tuition for Dreamers? Or not? The spring legislative session has only three weeks left.

A bill on illegal immigration pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to be heard in any of its three scheduled committees in the Florida House. Speaker Paul Renner said last week that the intention is for his chamber to soon begin moving on it, though he admitted that “I don’t know where that landing spot is yet.”

Currently the measure isn’t even included in the immigration bill sponsored by Central Florida Republican Blaise Ingoglia in the Senate. The House equivalent is sponsored by Jacksonville Republican Kiyan Michael. Republicans have maintained that a potential appeal of in-state tuition for Dreamers could be attached to another bill, possibly an education measure, before the end of the session.

João Gameiro. Credit: Mitch Perry.

João Gameiro is a pre-law senior at UCF who will be graduating in the next few weeks. He can’t believe that the idea of repealing the 2014 law is actually being considered.

“I thought this was a done deal. I thought there was a consensus among both parties that this is common sense legislation,” he says.

Gameiro says his goal is either to attend law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., or at the University of Florida, “so for me without this program helping me in the future, I’m not sure how I’d ever be able to go to law school.”

Whether that can happen may be decided in the next three weeks.

Advocates say that in-state tuition for undocumented students isn’t that significant a blow to the state economically, as a 2020 report said that undocumented students make up just 3 percent of the state’s public post-secondary system.

According to the Florida Policy Institute, the number of Dreamers granted out-of-state fee waivers under the 2014 law has dropped since the 2018-19 academic year, but that 6,500 Florida undergrads still benefitted from them in the 2021-2022 academic year, and nearly 36,000 have benefitted since 2017.

The organization TheDream.US bills itself as the country’s largest college access program for Dreamers in the country and says that it has awarded more than 1,150 scholarships to Florida Dreamers, with nearly 500 graduates.

“Stripping in-state tuition from Dreamers would be both cruel and counterproductive to Florida,” said Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, communications and development at TheDream.US in a written statement after DeSantis spoke about the proposal in February. (She was not at the state Capitol with the other Dreamers last week.)

The 2014 bill was passed into law on a bipartisan basis, with former Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford pushing hard for the measure and then second-year Miami Republican House member Jeanette Nuñez being responsible for getting the measure over the finish line. (Nuñez is now the lieutenant governor.)

A Tampa Bay Times story published shortly after that measure passed quoted then-Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala paying tribute to Núñez for her hard driving advocacy in getting the bill passed. “I was thinking how fitting it is . . . that the name on that bill is going to be Jeanette Nuñez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, the daughter of people who came to this country for a better life, to escape oppression,” Latvala said on the Senate floor in 2014.

But that was nearly a decade ago. Now Nuñez opposes the measure, and other Republicans in the Legislature have attempted to repeal the law, such as then-Sarasota Republican House member Greg Steube in 2017. He is now a Congressman. In addition, Republican Randy Fine of Brevard County also was for a 2021 bill on repealing in-state tuition. Neither made it for a floor vote.

Florida is one of 23 states that provide in-state tuition to undocumented students. Another four states provide undocumented students access to in-state tuition in some but not all universities, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal.

Another 7 states provide access to in-state tuition only to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), according to the portal.

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.