As students in the Senate gallery wiped tears from their eyes and the voice of the bill’s sponsor cracked, the Senate approved a measure Thursday that would grant in-state tuition to immigrant students brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Afterward, undocumented students, parents and supporters who had sat on the floor outside the doors to the Senate all week cried, pumped their fists in the air and took selfies with the Senate version’s sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
“I’m a big softy,” said Latvala, whose voice cracked during his final remarks before the vote. “This is a big deal. It’s one of the things we’ll remember the rest of our lives.”
Two hours after the vote Gov. Rick Scott held an impromptu news conference in the rotunda.
“It’s an exciting day for every student that dreams of a college education,” Scott said. Then, after thanking lawmakers, Scott took a quick swipe at Charlie Crist, his opponent in the governor’s race.” This corrects the wrongs of Charlie Crist.”
It was the second vote of the day in the Republican-controlled Legislature in support of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
Earlier Thursday, the House approved legislation (CS/HB 755) that would allow the Florida Supreme Court to admit a Tampa man as a lawyer, even though he remains an undocumented immigrant, brought to the state from Mexico when he was 9 years old.
The court earlier this year declined Jose Godinez-Samperio’s bid to become a lawyer, citing a federal restriction. But justices also urged lawmakers to change state law to override the federal ban — a move set for a final vote today in the Senate.
The tuition bill (HB 851) similarly must return to the House for a final vote because of changes made in the Senate since the House initially passed it.
The politics behind the developments, though, may be rooted in the upcoming governor’s race. Polls show Scott doing poorly with Florida Hispanics.
A Quinnipiac University survey before the session began showed Crist holding a two-to-one lead over Scott with Hispanic voters. As a candidate in 2010, Scott campaigned in support of a tough, Arizona-styled anti-immigration law, but failed to pursue such an effort as governor.
Scott’s appointment of Carlos Lopez-Cantero as lieutenant governor earlier this year also was seen as an attempt to bolster the governor’s prospects with the key voting bloc in Florida.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale pointed out after the in-state tuition bill passed, that similar measures had been introduced in the Florida Legislature since 2002. Each year, ruling Republicans blocked it.
“We’ve tried to get this bill passed because it’s something we truly believe in,” Thurston said. “It’s not something that we’re doing because it’s politically expedient.”
The Senate voted 26-13 in favor of the tuition bill after an hour of impassioned speeches for and against the measure.
Speaking against the bill, Sen. Aaron Beach, R-Jacksonville, asked the same question he posed during earlier debates: “Does being an American matter any more?”
“The laws aren’t being followed any more and we’re rewarding those who don’t follow the law,” Bean said. “We are giving so many benefits to non-citizens.”
Students wearing orange mortar board in support of the measure wiped away tears as Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, recalled her experience as a black fifth grader in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in schools and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
“I never gave up my dream for equality,” Joyner said, addressing the students directly. “You are not to be blamed for wanting to be the best.”
The bill garnered unanimous support from Senate Democrats along with votes from several Republicans, including Sen. John Thrasher, R-Augustine, Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Opponents of the bill included Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville and Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
The legislation that would help Godinez-Sampiero is narrowly tailored.
It would affect only someone who has lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years, came to the country as a child, is authorized to work and has been issued a Social Security number.
For males, the potential Bar member also would have had to signed up for Selective Service, which Godinez-Sampiero has done.
Godinez-Sampiero, who graduated from Florida State University College of Law in 2011 and passed the Florida Bar exam and its moral character test, watched the House vote Thursday from the public gallery and later acknowledged that combined with the tuition bill, it made for a remarkable day.
“The Florida Legislature is clearly moving in the right direction, recognizing the importance of immigrants in this state,” said Godinez-Sampiero. “I believe we are number four in the nation for immigrants…we’re great contributors to the economy. And the Florida Legislature is recognizing that.”