MIAMI — A group of employers, students and community leaders raised the alarm Thursday over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s proposal to overturn a law that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay for college and university tuition.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential candidate, has proposed reversing the 2014 measure as part of a package of legislation to crack down on illegal immigration.
“It never occurred to me in 2014 that we would meet again to address the issue of tuition,” Eduardo Padrón, former president of Miami Dade College, said at a press conference in Miami on Thursday.
The press conference was hosted by the American Business Immigration Coalition, or ABIC, a bipartisan group advocating for immigration reform.
“This is a matter of fairness and common sense and it is good for our economy. If you put up roadblocks at a time when there is a great need in areas like technology, doctors, nursing, it’s an ill-advised and ill-conceived idea,” said Padrón, a former president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
About 40,000 Florida higher education students are considered undocumented, with about 12,000 eligible for DACA and about 28,000 ineligible, according to the Higher Education Immigration Portal. Each year, approximately 5,000 Florida students who do not have permanent legal status graduate from high school in the state. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, offers young immigrants brought to the US as children temporary protection from deportation and permission to work legally.
The law making in-state tuition available to Florida students who do not have legal immigration status, known as Dreamers, was signed into law by the then government. Rick Scott, a Republican who now serves in the United States Senate. Although it was opposed by conservatives in the legislature at the time, it was supported by a number of Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez, then in the Florida House of Representatives.
While some Republicans who supported the bill remained silent on the issue, Scott has criticized DeSantis’s proposal as “unfair.”
He recently told reporters in Tampa that “It’s a bill I’m proud to sign. … It’s a bill I’d sign again today.”
Florida is one of 23 states, along with Washington, D.C., that allow students without permanent legal status who attended high school in the respective state or Washington, D.C. to pay in-state tuition.
In-state tuition and affordability for Dreamers is backed by moderate Republicans and the business community, as well as Democrats and immigrant groups who argue that expanding educational opportunities is better for the overall economy.
“Florida would only be hurting itself by doing away with in-state tuition for undocumented youth that the state has already invested in for their K-12 years,” said Mike Fernandez, president of MBF Healthcare Partners and co-chair of ABIC. in a press release.
“The whole point of making post-secondary education accessible to them, beyond basic fairness and decency, is to facilitate their access to the fields where Florida needs future workers most,” Fernandez said. “Not to mention that the more skilled they become and the more they earn, the more they will put into state and local tax revenue, not to mention the economy in general.”
DeSantis and other Republicans have changed significantly on immigration since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 on tough immigration stances.
“We work very hard to make higher education affordable for Floridians, and we are proud of that. We have the most affordable higher education in the country,” DeSantis said at a news conference last week. “We’ve had inflation. Costs have changed. If we want to keep tuition, then say you have to be a US citizen living in Florida. Why should we subsidize non-US citizens if we want to make sure we want to keep it affordable for our own people?”
When asked for comment on the criticism, DeSantis’ office referenced the governor’s previous comments. The office did not immediately respond to a request for data or research showing the effect of student tuition payments on rising tuition fees.
Proponents of the 2014 law say many students without legal status wouldn’t attend at all if they didn’t get a price break.
Murilo Alves, 25, is a medical student who came from Brazil when he was 3 years old. He is enrolled in DACA, which allows eligible young people to work and study in the US. The permission is temporary, must be renewed every two years and is being challenged in court by Republicans.
Alves paid in-state tuition for his undergraduate degree at Florida Atlantic University and is now a freshman medical student at Nova Southeastern University.
Alves credits Florida’s current law for allowing him to pursue higher education.
“It was very hard to get here, but I’m very grateful. Most importantly, I couldn’t have done any of this if I hadn’t had in-state tuition. That was crucial to getting to where I am now,” said he.
“I am extremely grateful that we had that advantage. I am hopeful that now, by sharing our stories, we can prevent this legislation that Gov. DeSantis is trying to pass,” Alves said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com