On the last day of its legislative session, the Florida State House passed a tuition equity bill, 84–32, that would grant undocumented immigrants the ability to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities and colleges. Just the night before, the State Senate had passed the same measure, 26–13. Gov Rick Scott (R) is expected to sign the bill. For three undocumented brothers, tuition equity would mean that they would collectively pay $43,474 less in tuition for the upcoming school year.
The three Escalante brothers came to Florida from Venezuela in 2000 with their parents on a professional work visa. After an unscrupulous lawyer mishandled their permanent residency paperwork, their application was closed without appeal. The Escalantes found out about this situation one night when they crowded around their dining table in 2007 to discover that the family had fallen out of legal status through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.
A few hours earlier, the oldest brother, Juan, received a call from a college admissions officer asking for his green card. The call ended with the officer telling Juan that he would be considered an out-of-state resident for tuition purposes. He was shocked and anxious that he wouldn’t be able to afford in-state tuition and even more distraught that his two college-bound younger brothers would also face the same fate.
“We got into a so-called ‘line,’” Juan recalled to ThinkProgress Thursday night. He said that his family’s immigration lawyer had told them that they were in a wait list for permanent residency. “A lot of people jump to the conclusion that my parents were at fault. My parents had no fault in getting me where I am. The immigration system is broken.”
On Thursday night, moments after the Florida Senate passed its version of the tuition equity bill, amid a gallery packed with other undocumented immigrants decked out in caps and gowns, a jubilant Juan shouted with glee. “I’m trying to get past the shaking and the tears and the emotions.”
Since 2009, Juan and his brothers have been fighting for tuition equity, sometimes taking their issue to legislators, other times pressuring university presidents to publicly back in-state tuition. Juan said, “I realized at 17 that my journey into higher education was going to be a lot more difficult than some of my peers.”
Now 25, Juan is a Florida State University (FSU) graduate student getting his masters in public administration and public policy. Since he began college, he has been working and going to school full-time in order to pay for his out-of-state tuition. He said, “every dime I could get my hands on, I put into tuition. I don’t have any savings because everything has been put into my education.”
As an FSU undergraduate, he paid about $215.55 per credit hour, whereas in-state residents paid $165.96 per credit hour. As a graduate student, Juan now pays about $1,110.72 per credit hour. In-state residents pay about $479.32 per credit hour. In the upcoming school year, Juan will likely pay $10,000 for in-state tuition instead of $22,210 for out-of-state tuition, a savings of $12,210.
Juan’s two younger brothers, Daniel (22) and David (21) are also relieved. Because all three brothers were granted work authorization under a 2012 presidential initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, they are working hard to pay for their education. Juan said, “Without DACA, I wouldn’t be where I am today. DACA has allowed us to pay taxes and strengthens us to work at jobs to finance our tuition … we’re capable of moving towards in-state tuition rates now.”
The younger brothers attend Miami Dade College, a two-year college, which as of 2012, already allows DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition. But Daniel and David both have aspirations of transferring to four-year colleges.
Daniel, a sophomore, said that he was “ecstatic” since “I [was] thinking of about getting a second job so that I can save up more money to go to school.” He hopes to transfer to FSU where he plans to major in education in order to become an English teacher one day. If the transfer goes smoothly, Daniel stands to pay $165.96 per credit hour instead of the $215.55 rate imposed on out-of-state students. The average annual FSU tuition costs around $6,575 for in-state tuition, while it costs $21,741 for out-of-state tuition, a savings of $15,166.
David, a freshman, hopes to transfer to the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he wants to major in business management. Like his brothers, David works full-time in order to save up for a four-year college. “It’s going to help a lot with in-state tuition,” he said. “That sort of economic projection to save for tuition has helped me grow up and make better decisions with my money. I feel proud of myself that I can say that I paid for college, but … my top priority is now saving for school.” The average annual UCF in-state tuition costs $6,317, while out-of-state tuition costs $22,415, a savings of $16,098.
About 175,000 undocumented immigrants living in Florida are in similar positions to the Escalante brothers. The average savings on in-state tuition in Florida public colleges is around $14,000. A Rand Corporation study found that undocumented workers with college degrees will pay $5,300 more in taxes and require $3,900 less in government expenses each year compared to a high school dropout with similar characteristics.