AG: State can't leave immigrant tuition break up to colleges

Friday, December 15, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 50

NASHVILLE (AP) — State lawmakers, not Tennessee's public colleges and universities, must decide whether to offer in-state tuition breaks for students whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally, according to an opinion by the state attorney general.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued the opinion earlier this month in response to a failed bill, now up for reconsideration, that would allow the schools to make the decision. One of the problems with the initial bill is that while it mentions the issue of in-state tuition, it fails to specifically cite immigrants who are in the country illegally, Slatery said.

Even if that is changed, he added, legal precedent seems to show that lawmakers need to be responsible for the decision.

"Every court to have addressed this provision has interpreted it to require the state legislature to enact legislation expressly making unlawful aliens eligible for public benefits, including in-state tuition," Slatery wrote.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said wording the legislation more explicitly about immigrants makes it a tougher sell among lawmakers. That's despite a Vanderbilt University poll released last week that found more than 7 in 10 Tennessee voters surveyed favor the tuition break for students brought to the country illegally at a young age.

"In today's political climate, especially in a year where everyone is running for office again, it makes it very difficult to spell it out," White said.

The proposal to let individual institutions make in-state tuition decisions failed earlier this year. So did a bill to grant those students in-state tuition across all public colleges and universities, which White also sponsored. Both bills are expected to be considered again in 2018.

The bill that would have made the change across the board narrowly failed in a House education panel. A similar measure in 2015 passed the Senate but died by a single vote on the House floor.

About 20 other states and Washington, D.C., have similar in-state tuition policies for these students. Tennessee's out-of-state rate can be three times what state residents pay.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director at the Tennessee Immigration & Refugee Rights Coalition, said Slatery's opinion was good news.

"The attorney general made it clear that states can write laws to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students and be in compliance with federal law," Sherman-Nikolaus said.

Slatery's opinion was requested by Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican who has opposed the immigrant tuition push.