Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez shared the story he shared with the Faculty Senate a few weeks earlier, this time with a higher governing body at the university – the Board of Trustees (BOT).
At its meeting earlier this month, the Board listened to Sousa-Rodriguez’s story of his journey as a six-year-old leaving Colombia without necessary paperwork as imminent violence threatened his family, to where he stands today as a senior majoring in sociology, ready to complete his degree and advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants – particularly in regards to their right to pay in-state tuition if they’ve lived in state for a certain time prior to attending a university.
Though the movement has gained traction among students and faculty – a Faculty Senate declaration of support was read and about a dozen student activists and members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) attended the meeting with signs and posters of support – members of the BOT, who said they were moved by Sousa-Rodriguez’s story, continued to hold they had no power to act upon it.
BOT Chairman John Ramil, who said he came from a family of immigrants and could empathize with many of the difficulties Sousa-Rodriguez spoke of, asked him if he had shared his “very compelling story” with Fla. Speaker of the House Will Weatherford, someone he said USF has a direct line to.
Weatherford has vocally supported immigrant tuition reform. Last week he said he was encouraged by Gov. Rick Scott’s public endorsement of a Senate bill that is still being debated. The bill would allow in-state tuition for qualifying undocumented immigrants.
Sousa-Rodriguez said he had written letters, but never directly addressed him.
Mark Lombardi-Nelson, student representative to the BOT, introduced the issue as a discussion, saying that this is an issue that student leadership from around the State University System have identified to be meaningful during this legislative season and have prioritized it on their lobbying agenda.
But Sousa-Rodriguez said he wishes he could’ve seen more from the Board.
“It’s a little contradicting that so much of what they do is talk about policy initiatives and initiatives that are being advocated on in Tallassee, such as budget initiatives, and things like that,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason we cannot be equally aggressive or kind of champion the cause of tuition equity for undocumented students that should be on our legislative agenda. We should have students affected by this issue going with representatives of the university going to (politicians’) offices in Tallahassee. There is a lot of room for this university to step up and understand we’re in a historical moment right now. We’ve seen it from other universities and hope USF can be a leader in this movement.”
Veronica Antonio Juarez, a sophomore majoring in elementary education who came to express her support, said she wishes USF made a decision like Florida International University. The FIU BOT voted to create a tuition-waiver system for students who are granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status by the federal government.
Antonio Juarez said her older brother was brought to the U.S. at the age of one because of ongoing violence in his home country. While he went to high school with the rest of his friends, by the time he reached the university level, she said her family couldn’t afford to pay the out-of-state tuition rate to send him to school. He joined the military instead.
“They’re hiding behind this law of not being able to do it legally,” Antonio Juarez said about her disappointment with the Trustees’ response.
University General Counsel Steve Prevaux said while the individual trustees were supportive of the cause, university boards cannot make such tuition decisions without the state taking action first.
“Our board is not FIU,” he said. “Right now, federal and local law prohibits us from providing post-secondary benefits without the state enacting positive legislation. Until the legislative body acts and changes the law, we can’t make the law for the legislature. We do respect the law making authority they have.”
Lombardi-Nelson said some of the FIU decisions were still raising “redtape questions” that could lead to trouble come time of audits. Thus, he said, though the Board was supportive of the cause, Tallahassee was the better place to start.
“If there was a way we could’ve done it without negative repercussions for the university, I promise, we would’ve already done it,” he said. “You have consensus of the individuals on the board, which can be a rare thing.”
BOT member Brian Lamb said he appreciated hearing Sousa-Rodriguez and the students’ concerns and that support for this cause should continue to come at the student and faculty level.
“There is no doubt we take this very seriously here at this university,” he said. “Students and faculty should be the first advocates without a doubt. When the time is right, we will have the ability to move forward and make that recommendation.”
Gage Lacharite, president of SDS, said he wasn’t satisfied with the university’s response and will travel to Tallahassee later this week with SDS to lobby at the state level.
“They throw out excuses over and over. I think they’re really just waiting for Tallahassee to do something. I think they just don’t want them to be the first ones to take a step, but I want them to do that.
But Lombardi-Nelson, who will be attending future events where this issue will be lobbied for, said he was encouraged.
“You had board members verbally commit their support,” he said. “I think people underestimate the significance of that… We’re bringing this issue to the forefront, and this time we’re really close.”