‘Beyond our purview’


His voice shaking slightly, Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez recalled some of his earliest memories of living in the U.S. as he stood before the Faculty Senate on Wednesday.

Sousa-Rodriguez spoke of his childhood days after immigrating from Colombia before the Faculty Senate moved to pass an emergency declaration in support of allowing qualifying undocumented immigrants eligibility for in-state tuition rates. This came hours after the Florida House of Representatives passed a similar bill on what has become a hot-button political issue and has state universities pondering the stances they are allowed take. 

As a six-year-old, Sousa-Rodriguez remembered the day men with guns came to door of his family home, amid a backdrop of years of violence in Colombia. They threatened to kill some of his family members. 

His family took him to an airport and put him on an airplane to Miami without the necessary paperwork, he said. They told him it was too dangerous to come back. 

“The day we arrived, my father told me this is a country where you have to work hard to prove your worth,” Rodriguez said. 

So he did. 

As a junior in high school, he was on track to becoming valedictorian, he said, participating on the track team, swim team, serving as president of multiple clubs and organizations and clocking in more than 100 hours of community service. 

But his guidance counselor told him he should come up with a new plan, Sousa-Rodriguez said. When he was 18, he’d be seen as a criminal.

“It was very disheartening for me,” Rodriguez said. “It kind of shattered my world.”

But since graduating from high school in 2007, Rodriguez said he has re-mapped his path, receiving citizenship 13 years after arriving in the U.S., enrolling in community college and transferring to USF, watching some of his relatives – including his father and sister in 2010 – be deported and accruing “insurmountable” out-of state tuition costs, which at USF is close to three times the rate of in-state tuition. 

The declaration passed by the Faculty Senate, drafted and introduced by sociology professor Elizabeth Aranda, is one that is non-binding – and unlike a measure the Student Government Senate used on this issue last fall – simply seeks to express the wishes of the governing body without seeking response from any other body at the University. 

The declaration was passed as an emergency agenda item instead of being drafted and vetted through the standard process. This is because Faculty Senate president Gregory Teague said, were the item to be passed, the opinion of the faculty would be expressed at the next Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting on March 6. Here, Aranda said, the Board may address the issue.  

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a student organization that has lobbied for the issue in recent semesters, also plans to attend the Board meeting with signs to “call on the Board of Trustees to make history and immediately implement tuition equality.” 

But USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said though members of BOT expressed personal support for the cause at a recent workgroup meeting, they did not intend to discuss the issue further. 

USF General Counsel Steve Prevaux said the issue was one that the Board did not have the authority to enact policy on. Federal and state laws prohibit the university on providing certain post-secondary education benefits to undocumented immigrants, and university boards were not created to lobby, he said. 

“This is one of those arenas where we need a substantive change in law,” Prevaux said. “… To be fair, as public universities, we are sole-objective agencies of the state branch of government that we all know to be the executive. We’re not here to make the law. That’s part of why you don’t see public universities publicly resolving on prospective legislation, that is beyond our purview.”  

But pending legislation is on going, and Prevaux said university leadership expressing their support through measures such as the declaration was within a university’s purview.  

“This is the time,” he said. “Tallahassee has substantive legislature pending.” 

Wednesday’s House bill that stipulates students must live in Florida three years prior to graduating high school and enroll in college within two years after to be eligible for in-state tuition. This is expected to face resistance in the state Senate and is not the first of its kind to have been heard in Tallahassee.

In 2003, a House bill Co-sponsored by Jeff Kottkamp and Marco Rubio attempted to provide in-state tuition to those who lived in the state for three years prior to graduating high school never left the House. 

But Matt Hastings, a lead organizer with SDS, said the Board not addressing the issue is an inadequate response. 

Hastings is involved with planning SDS’s call to action to the Board and an event in support of the cause, featuring music and spoken word at 7 tonight in the Marshall Student Center Amphitheater. 

“It’s literally their job to make decisions like this,” Hastings said. “It’s a way to deflect and stall so they don’t have to take a bold step.” 

Other Florida universities have remained largely silent on the issue, with the exception of Florida International University, whose Board of Trustees voted to implement a tuition-waiver system that grants partial waivers to students who are granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status by the federal government. The University of Florida faculty senate also passed a similar declaration of support.

Aranda said for now the declaration would send a message to undocumented students, such as Sousa-Rodriguez, who graduate in December, that they are welcomed at USF. 

“It’s value-added to have students from diverse backgrounds at USF,” she said. “If we send the message that the doors are open a little wider for you, that would help.”