Heralded as a bipartisan victory when it passed, a Florida law granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students could now be in danger.
A bill filed Wednesday by conservative Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, seeks to erase that 2014 provision. Colleges no longer would have to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented students who attend Florida high schools.
"It is certainly a big issue in my district among my constituents, who were frustrated and upset that the state would allow undocumented illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-supported in-state tuition," he said. "So I think it's important to file the bill and have a discussion on it."
Steube said he knocked on thousands of doors in his primary campaign. Unfailingly, voters asked about two things: the Second Amendment, and illegal immigration. He remembers one working-class man in particular, disappointed that after working so hard to put his family through college, the state would give undocumented immigrants a tuition break.
"I just don't think it's good public policy for the state," Steube said. "And with the change in leadership and the change in both of the chambers, I think it's a policy that is worth revisiting."
More than a decade of contention preceded the 2014 tuition bill. When it finally passed in a high-profile 26-13 vote in the Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott deemed it "a historic day."
"Just think," Scott said then. "Children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."
The vote felt like victory for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the bill.
"The eyes of America are on us," he said. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."
On Wednesday, Latvala had little to say about the new Senate Bill 82.
"First I've heard about it," he said. "I'm out of state, so I really don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to take a look."
Before passing in spring 2014 with significant Republican support, the tuition proposal faced strong opposition within the party.
Then-Senate President Don Gaetz rebuked the bill in an email to his constituents, incensed that it would aid even those from countries rife with "anti-American violence." And incoming Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his committee wouldn't hear the bill, deflating its potential of becoming law.
Latvala crafted a strategy in response, adding the language to several other bills going before the panel to keep the effort alive. Student activists also kept the heat on Senate leaders, staging news conferences and pressing for meetings. Scott told reporters he considered the bill a priority.
On Wednesday, his office said it was taking a look at the new proposal.
Steube, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, said he hasn't talked to Negron or Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran about the legislation yet. But knowing of their previous opposition gave him hope.
Negron and Corcoran have not returned calls for comment.
The benefits of the bill are already being felt by young adults who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, who sponsored the 2014 bill in the House.
“This really isn’t an immigration bill, this is access to higher education,” she said. “I for one am focused on empowering families and being able to provide opportunities for students.”
Despite the Senate president’s likely support, she said she’s not too concerned about Steube’s bill just yet. She vowed to fight it tooth and nail.
“Clearly, in my mind, he’s still in campaign mode,” she said. “There’s a lot of football to be played, and we’re in the preseason at this point. Hopefully at the end of the day we’ll prevail.”
Photo credit: State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in 2014 when he was in the Florida House. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times