Government & Politics

Missouri GOP, pressured by the right, reimposes in-state tuition ban for Dreamers

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Making it in America, a new video series, takes viewers into the lives of those neighbors down the street, who maybe speak with a bit of an accent, but are no less committed to this country’s future.

Missouri Republicans moved Thursday to reverse a two-day-old decision that would have ended a ban on in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Immigrants protected under DACA (Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals), known as Dreamers, have paid international tuition rates since 2015, when the legislature first wrote the ban into the state budget. However, on Tuesday, at the behest of the Missouri Senate, the ban was lifted from the annual funding bill for higher education. Lawmakers left in place a prohibition on scholarships to DACA students.

But on Thursday House Republicans took the unusual step of rejecting the higher education budget bill in an effort to force the Missouri Senate to reinstate the ban. Hours later the Senate complied, and the bill was sent back to the conference committee.

Later that night and into the early hours of Friday, the Missouri House and Senate passed all of the state’s operating budget bills, most likely cementing the ban for at least another year.

State Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, who led the move to rid the budget of the ban, said he decided not to resist the Senate’s flip-flop because of the legislature’s constitutional deadline to send a state budget to Gov. Mike Parson by 6 p.m. Friday.

“The House took an unprecedented step to vote no (on a budget bill) and sometimes you have to be pragmatic about how this process functions and accept realities that you disagree with,” Holsman said. “And I vehemently disagree that this is in the best interest of the state of the Missouri.”

The Missouri Senate has stripped the in-state tuition ban from the budget bill for the last two years, only to see the Missouri House members to put it back in later in the process. For the first time this year, its removal survived a conference committee on budget bills, with six of the 10 House-Senate conference committee members speaking in favor of the change.

Normally, after conference committee reports are signed, budget bills are sent to the full chamber for one more up or down vote, with no option for changes.

However, after press reports and premature celebration by advocates, Missouri House Republicans, along with other anti-immigration groups, mobilized in opposition.

On Wednesday, lawmakers received an email blast from United for Missouri, a nonprofit advocating for limited government that is run by former House Speaker Pro-Tem Carl Bearden. The group urged reinstatement of the ban and warned that their votes on the budget bill would be graded on its legislative scorecard.

Despite the budget bill sailing through the Missouri Senate once before, some members of the Conservative Caucus, a bloc of Republican senators, vowed to work against it.

“I am deeply disappointed in the Missouri Budget Conference committee for supporting education subsidies for illegal aliens,” state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, tweeted Wednesday. “The #Conservative6 are 100% committeed to fighting this illegal action. #MAGA.”

The result in the House Thursday was a 110-43 vote along party lines to reject the budget bill.

“We are just saying that publicly funded universities may not use state appropriated dollars to (offer in-state tuition),” House Budget Chair Cody Smith said on the floor.

The move was “heart-breaking” for DACA students, many of whom have lived and paid taxes in Missouri for more than a decade, multiple House Democrats said. One immigration advocacy group estimates 7,542 DACA-eligible immigrants live in Missouri.

Some House Republicans said offering in-state tuition to DACA students amounted to disenfranchising Missouri citizens. Though some expressed sympathy, they encouraged the young immigrants to rely on private donations or to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

“It’s so much better when you work hard for it,” state Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said, of a college education. “...I wish everybody could have the same opportunity but the world is not like that.”

*This story was updated to include overnight legislative action.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.