Mylena DeMaman has been working and saving for college since graduating from Sarasota High School in 2012, but the high cost of continuing her education can be disheartening.
The 19-year-old recently filled out an application to attend State College of Florida and was dismayed to learn she may have to pay much more than most students — $11,595 annually to attend full-time versus $3,074 for the typical Florida resident.
Mylena DeMaman is applying to State College of Florida and hopes to get an associate’s degree before moving on to a Florida university. But because DeMaman’s parents brought her to the country illegally as a young girl, the bright 19-year-old with ambitions of becoming a doctor will have to pay triple what other Florida residents do for college. (Staff photo by Mike Lang)
The extra cost stems from the fact that DeMaman’s family came to the United States from Brazil illegally a decade ago.
Undocumented immigrants pay the higher “out of state” tuition rate at most Florida colleges and universities, but that could soon change. In a surprising move that has divided Republicans and contradicts previous efforts by state leaders such as Gov. Rick Scott to crack down on immigrants who came to the country illegally, momentum is building to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who have attended Florida high schools.
Political observers say the legislation — which has cleared the House and passed a second Senate committee this week — is a concession to the demographic changes shaping Florida.
Hispanics are an increasingly influential voting bloc. They made up 17 percent of the Florida electorate in the 2012 presidential election, up from 14 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. These voters lean heavily Democratic: President Barack Obama won 60 percent of Florida Hispanics in 2012. Republicans would like to change that equation going forward.
“2012 was a demographic reality check for Republican strategists,” said New College of Florida political science professor Frank Alcock.
The in-state tuition bill is a significant step by Florida GOP leaders toward Hispanic outreach. It has been championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican seen as a potential candidate for statewide office. But the legislation is not without political risks, especially for Scott.
The governor won office in 2010 touting a tough Arizona immigration law that critics said amounted to racial profiling. He also supported forcing Florida businesses to electronically verify that their workers are in the country legally.
Scott’s hard-line immigration views endeared him to the Tea Party and likely contributed to his closely contested primary victory. Many conservatives strongly oppose the in-state tuition bill and say Scott’s signature on the legislation would be a betrayal.
“He’d be making a mistake to support this bill,” said Beth Colvin with the Sarasota Patriots, a local Tea Party group. “I just feel the majority of the conservatives have faith in him because he does have his values and his heart in the right place and I just don’t feel like there’s any need for us to reach out to illegals.”
Yet Scott long ago stopped talking about the Arizona immigration law or E-verify, and appears to be moving toward the center on immigration issues. He expressed support for the Senate tuition bill this week, but avoided talking specifically about illegal immigrants.
Lawmakers have sweetened the legislation by including one of Scott’s top priorities in the bill, a provision that limits universities from hiking tuition without legislative approval.
That allows Scott to sell the legislation as a financial boon for all students, not just undocumented immigrants.
“On behalf of all of Florida’s families who dream of a brighter future for their kids, and all of our students who aspire to achieve success in the classroom and in the workforce, we will keep fighting to help every student in Florida afford a college education,” Scott said in a statement after the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday by a 7-2 vote, with four Republicans in support and two in opposition.
Alcock said Scott is walking a fine line with the tuition measure, trying to “have his cake and eat it” by quietly backing a priority of the Hispanic community while working to minimize Tea Party anger. Ultimately, the rewards are probably worth the risk.
“Tea Party people are going to show up no matter what and they’re not going to vote for” Scott’s Democratic opponent, expected to be Charlie Crist, Alcock said.
The legislation still has two more committee stops in the Senate. The fact that top Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill is a favorable sign for the measure. Supporters included Sen. John Thrasher, the former Republican Party of Florida chairman, and Sen. Andy Gardiner, the next Senate president.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, voted against the bill at an earlier committee stop but has agreed to let it be heard next by the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, which Galvano chairs. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, also is on the committee.
There is strong interest in the issue among the Hispanic population in Sarasota and Manatee counties, said Victoria Karins, a Sarasota immigration attorney who has helped DeMaman and roughly 150 other young people in the region gain a measure of legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program announced by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Deferred action allows younger immigrants who have been in the country for years to obtain a driver’s license, Social Security number and limited protection against deportation.
The in-state tuition bill is another step toward “being able to really fully integrate them into society,” Karins said.
DeMaman’s father works as a mechanic. Her mother cleans houses. They emphasize the importance of education.
“They always tell us, ‘The reason why we brought you to this country was to do good in school,’ and fortunately I really like school,” said DeMaman, who has lived in Sarasota since the fourth grade and speaks without an accent.
Bright and highly motivated, DeMaman has long been focused on a medical career. She took medical billing classes at the Sarasota County Technical Institute while in high school and served as president of SCTI’s Future Business Leaders of America club.
Working at a medical practice over the last year has sparked an interest in becoming a doctor. But the costs can seem daunting.
“It is discouraging,” she said. “And why would you want to discourage somebody from getting an education?”