Today, the final gavel will fall in the 109th General Assembly. In a few short weeks undocumented students in the Class of 2016 will walk across the graduation stage. They've been holding their breath, fingers-crossed, that tuition equality would pass the House of Representatives; that this year they would finally have a fair shot at going to college. And yet, the legislature will adjourn today, without bringing the tuition equality bill up for a vote.
In 2015, 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 the House floor. This year, we needed 18 votes in the Calendar and Rules Committee to get a second chance on the House floor.
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.
We are angered and saddened by the cowardice of many in the House of Representatives. We are deeply, painfully aware of how much is at stake for students and families - how heartbreaking and high the cost of inaction is for so many of our members.
Over the past year, and for the first time, students in even the most rural towns publicly told their story of being undocumented and their hopes of going to college. Knowing their stories are the most powerful tool in this campaign, they came out as undocumented to teachers and legislators, leaving us all in awe of their courage. We wish the members of the House of Representatives could have demonstrated half as much courage as the undocumented students who have been leading our campaign.
For the past 12 months, we've been organizing in every corner of this state. We've built a coalition of thousands, from Dreamers to educators, from Memphis to Morristown. And we didn't stand alone - farmers in every county voted to include tuition equality as part of the Tennessee Farm Bureau's 2016 legislative agenda. The Tennessee Board of Regents included our bill as one of their key policy priorities for 2016, recognizing that it's an important step in the Drive to 55. Statewide, chambers of commerce, university presidents, faith leaders, and community groups all joined us in pushing for tuition equality. To all of our partners in this campaign, we thank you. We also want to thank our sponsors, Senator Todd Gardenhire from Chattanooga and Representative Mark White from Memphis, for demonstrating what real political courage looks like.
To the undocumented students in the Class of 2016, getting ready to graduate, we see you. You are not alone. Thousands of undocumented students in Tennessee have walked across the graduation stage before you, also effectively denied access to higher education. We're here for you, and we won't stop fighting for our education, our families, and dignity for all. And we hope you'll join us.
Through this four year campaign, undocumented students have found their voice and found their community. Our movement is powerful and our members are resilient. Despite the failure of the House of Representatives to take action this year, we know that history and momentum are on our side and that it's only a matter of time before tuition equality becomes a reality in Tennessee. We will turn our anger into action, harness the courage of Dreamers across the state, and come back again for the 2017 legislative session stronger than ever. And we need you to join us. Please share this and make a commitment now, that the Class of 2016 will be the last class to graduate without tuition equality.
Cesar Bautista, Dreamer & TIRRC Youth Organizer
Jazmin Ramirez, Dreamer & Vice President of the TIRRC Board of Directors
Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC Co-Executive Director
P.S. Stay tuned for more details about what's next for the 2017 campaign and our strategy to win tuition equality. To read Chairman Mark White's response and a quote from one of our members who is getting ready to graduate, read our press statement.