Since 2012, TIRRC has led a statewide campaign to pass a law that would grant Tennessee’s undocumented students the opportunity to pay in-state tuition rates at our public colleges and universities. In just three years of launching our campaign, we came within one vote of passing our bill in one of the country’s most conservative legislatures.
While tuition opportunity is not yet a reality, we’ve organized thousands of undocumented students and built a coalition of supporters that includes chambers of commerce, education institutions, the Tennessee Farm Bureau, and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. We will keep fighting until all Tennessee high school graduates have an opportunity to pursue a higher education. Currently, 20 states have in place policies that would improve access to higher education by providing in-state tuition rates to students, regardless of their immigration status.
For the first time, our campaign officially gained the support of Governor Haslam. With the governor’s endorsement our coalition was stronger than ever, but the opposition, emboldened by President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, organized against us at every turn. Ultimately, a former co-sponsor voted against advancing the bill out of the House Education Committee.
Since 2016 marked the second half of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly and since we passed the senate the previous year, we only needed 18 votes in the Calendar and Rules Committee to get a second chance on the House floor. But, in an election season fueled by Presidential politics and anti-immigrant rhetoric, members of the House of Representatives chose to deny thousands of students access to higher education rather than cast a vote on this bill. There were not 18 members of the Calendar and Rules Committee willing to vote for tuition equality.
After years of fighting dozens of anti-immigrant bills, TIRRC created the space to advance a bill that invests in immigrant youth instead of marginalizing them. The Tennessee Senate passed the tuition equality bill by an overwhelming vote of 21-12, and the bill came within just one vote of passing on the House floor.
Two bills were filed that would have expanded access to in-state tuition rates to many undocumented Tennessee graduates, but they did not make it out of committee. TIRRC was successful however in shifting the narrative about tuition equality, helping people to understand the issue and recognize the real impact of tuition policies on Tennessee students. We were in the media several times every week during the legislative session--bringing DREAMers' stories into living rooms across Tennessee. Journalists noted the changing tone and softening stance of legislators on this issue.
Immigrant Youth Launch Campaign for Tuition Equality
TIRRC's youth group, JUMP (Jovenes por un Mejor Presente) identified changing our state's tuition policies as their number one goal, began organizing immigrant students across the state and created a movement of youth, teachers, business people, and educators. In 2012, they launched the campaign for tuition equality as the Class of 2012 walked across the graduation stage.