The Tennessee Legislature has revived debate over granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. On Tuesday afternoon, a House subcommittee took the first action for the year, approving a bill which would allow all students who spend at least three years in a Tennessee high school to pay in-state rates at public colleges, regardless of their immigration status.
While similar proposals have made it past this point in recent years, they have all fallen short of becoming law. And usually by slim margins. Last year, the bill failed in a senate committee by one vote. In 2015, it cleared the full Senate but fell in the House — again, by a single vote.
Hours before Tuesday's vote, students gathered to learn how tell their stories to lawmakers. For those who’ve been fighting to pass this legislation year after year, it’s clear that every opportunity to speak with a lawmaker matters. That one person could cast a deciding vote.
"We have a very short time, so we have to be very quick and very powerful," said Isaias Guerrero, speaking at a workshop before the vote. More than 150 students and teachers showed up to the event organized by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
"We lead with our hearts, because there is nothing more powerful than our story. Our story is the truth," Guerrero says. "We live it every day. We know what it’s like to not have documents. We know what it’s like to have a dream of a college education and have it be blocked because we don’t have in-state tuition."
In these smaller groups, the students are taught how to condense a lifetime into two-minute talking points. They must be concise but insightful, exposing their pain so that others can relate while also highlighting their accomplishments.
After a bit of roleplaying, the first round of students packs into a bus. Alondra Coral-Alejandro, who is a citizen and a junior at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, reflects on her undocumented classmates.
"I see them struggle everyday," she says. "And it’s hard for me, because I have so many resources. It is easier for me. When sometimes they even have better grades than I do, work harder than I do. So, why do they have to be punished?"
It takes three bus trips to transport all the students to the state capitol. By the time the vote rolls around, they’ve had more than 50 meetings with lawmakers in two hours and even a group photo with Governor Bill Haslam, who has publicly supported the initiative.
The student lobbying seemed to pay off. In just a couple of minutes, a subcommittee votes to advance the measure. The bill, which TIRRC says is supported by most of the state's universities, still has several steps before being reconsidered by the full House and Senate.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of TIRRC, said afterward that the organization and its members are "encouraged by today's vote and hope the legislature will move quickly to pass this bill and allow the thousands of students graduating from high school this spring the chance to follow their dreams."