Will Weatherford has just one more legislative session to go before his tenure as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives expires, and he's decided to go bold in his call to allow immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to pay the lower college tuition and fees charged to legal Florida residents.
In an op-ed published in today's Tampa Bay Times, Weatherford writes:
In 2014, Florida can be among the leaders on this issue and provide a welcome contrast to the dysfunction that currently grips Washington. If Washington had a rational approach to immigration, Florida wouldn't be faced with this dilemma. But we should not ignore problems in our own backyard caused by federal gridlock a thousand miles away. The Florida Legislature's failure to act would only compound the problem. Sixteen states have already addressed this issue. It's now Florida's turn. In the next legislative session, I'll champion a bill that will allow all of Florida's children to pay in-state tuition if they're academically qualified and have attended a Florida high school.
As Weatherford notes, Florida would hardly be in the vanguard on the issues, as 16 other states have passed such laws, and six other states are contemplating such a bill. But lest we forget, this is a fiercely conservative Republican Legislature.
Just three years ago the state Senate passed a bill that would require the police to make “a reasonable effort” to determine the immigration status of people they arrest and jail. It also would have required that undocumented immigrants who are convicted of nonviolent crimes be referred to federal officials for deportation. It died in the House however, and there has been little appetite amongst Republicans since then.
The primary reason for that is simply the growth and importance of the Latino vote in Florida, something state Republicans truly get, and it was epitomized by Governor Rick Scott's selection earlier this month of former Miami-Dade County property appraiser and legislator Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Cuban American (though how much that choice will aid Scott with Hispanics may be debatable considering Lopez-Cantera's previous stances).
Whether Weatherford can persuade his colleagues to support the measure will be interesting to observe when the legislative session begins in March. But he's definitely won the support of the advocates who've been lobbying for this change.
"I am proud of his courage and his intellect to see the conundrum of the undocumented student created by our broken immigration system," says Christopher Cano, Florida Deputy State Director for Young Adults for LULAC (League of Latin American Citizens). "I hope that courage will turn to advocacy for these Florida students when comes to his GOP colleagues in the Legislature. It takes courage to stand up against your friends."
Cano adds in his text message to CL that he was disappointed that there was no move by the Legislature to override Governor Scott's veto last year of a bill which would have allowed some young immigrants illegally living in the U.S. to apply for a temporary driver's license. That veto came despite the fact that the Legislature voted nearly unanimously in support of the bill in both houses (two people in the House voted no).
"We need action and we need our Speaker to see this through to the end," Cano says.