TN Faith Leaders Support Tuition Equality

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Photo Credit: Ralph Hutchison

Over the course of the spring 2016 session of the General Assembly, in anticipation of a vote on Tuition Equality in the Tennessee House, AKIN convened a working group of people of faith to try to make sure that area representatives heard from faith leaders supportive of Tuition Equality.  Eventually two letters were circulated within local faith circles.  The texts were similar, with one speaking from a Christian perspective and the other from an interfaith perspective.   Together the letters were signed by ninety faith leaders from Knoxville and surrounding communities, from a range of different denominations and faith traditions, people who live and worship in many legislative districts across our area.  The letters were sent to over a dozen members of the Tennessee House.  

Of course the working group was sorely disappointed that Tuition Equality did not become a reality in Tennessee this year.  But the group knows too that all faith traditions uphold the principle of welcoming the stranger and that voices of faith are important for public conversation in Tennessee.  Their plan is to build upon the lessons and contacts gained last spring, and to return in January 2017 with new resolve in support of increased access to higher education for immigrant youth.

The letters are reprinted below with permission from the working group.

First, the letter from Christian faith communities:

The undersigned are active leaders and members of Christian faith communities in the Knoxville area, many in your district. We write to urge you to vote yes on HB 675, a measure that would increase access to higher education for immigrant youth in Tennessee.

We write as Christians because we believe this issue has important moral dimensions related to our faith. We hope you will agree that these dimensions are worthy of your consideration as you reach a decision in this important matter.

As you probably know, HB 675 would allow certain young immigrants who now live in Tennessee to attend public college or university at in-state tuition rates rather than having to pay the out-of-state rates that are currently required of those who lack permanent immigration status.   If passed, the bill would join Tennessee with over twenty other states that have moved, by statute or administrative action, to afford in-state tuition to young immigrants in this situation. (Under HB 675, such access in Tennessee would be limited to those young people who have already applied for and been granted temporary status as “childhood arrivals” by federal authorities, a grant that requires submitting an application, paying a fee, clearing a background check, and meeting other conditions.)

Students helped by HB 675 would still face many barriers to higher education – including their lack of eligibility for state or federal financial aid. But tuition reform would make it possible for many more such young people living in Tennessee to meet their full potential — realizing their vocational and professional dreams, providing adequately for their own future families, and contributing to the well-being of the larger community and the economy.

From its earliest days our faith tradition has shown a deep concern for those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. God calls Christians to love such strangers – migrants, refugees, trafficked persons or exiles – and to treat them with the same respect and care we give those born among us. Christian churches are called to welcome such strangers as children of God, as our sisters and brothers in Christ.

To be sure, discerning how to translate such a call into right action in the world is not always easy: people of good will can and do have differences. But our scripture puts the question squarely before the faithful:

And thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.       Exodus 23:9.

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.           Leviticus 19: 33-34

We recognize that private charity has a role to play in responding to this call to welcome the stranger. Many of our congregations are already involved in reaching out to (and being blessed by) immigrant and refugee communities in our midst. In different ways we offer different kinds of help to immigrant adults and children alike, often related to education. For instance, some of us offer English and other life-skills classes to adults, and some tutor elementary and middle-school students. Some of our congregations have taken up contributions to help promising young individuals from low-income families put together enough money to pay the steep rate now charged.

But we also recognize that public policy plays an important role, for good or ill, in welcoming the stranger or in failing to do so. Leadership from elected officials is urgently needed if we are to integrate today’s newcomers on wholesome terms.   HB 675 offers an important opportunity for the Tennessee House to take one important step in that direction. Continuing to relegate too many in this generation of young immigrants to a place in the shadows, at the margin, and under the radar is neither just nor wise.

We hope you will exercise leadership in lending support to HB 675, both for the sake of the aspiring young immigrants who will be directly affected, and for the true benefit of everyone in your district. Wherever these young men and women eventually end up — here in Tennessee, in another state, or in another country — the world will be a better and safer place because of their being given this chance to continue their education and having received this positive and far-sighted support from our community and our state.

Thank you for your attention and concern. Best wishes for the new year and for a productive legislative session in 2016.

The Interfaith Letter follows:

The undersigned are active leaders and members of religious faith communities in the Knoxville area, including people in your district. We write to urge you to vote yes on HB 675, a measure that would increase access to higher education for immigrant youth in Tennessee.

We write as people of faith because we believe this issue has important moral dimensions deeply rooted in our faith traditions. We hope you will agree that these dimensions are worthy of your consideration as you reach a decision in this important matter.

As you probably know, HB 675 would allow certain young immigrants who now live in Tennessee to attend public college or university at in-state tuition rates rather than having to pay the out-of-state rates that are currently required of those who lack permanent immigration status.   If passed, the bill would join Tennessee with over twenty other states that have moved, by statute or administrative action, to afford in-state tuition to young immigrants in this situation. (Under HB 675, such access in Tennessee would be limited to those young people who have already applied for and been granted temporary status as “childhood arrivals” by federal authorities, a grant that requires submitting an application, paying a fee, clearing a background check, and meeting other conditions.)

Students helped by HB 675 would still face many barriers to higher education – including their lack of eligibility for state or federal financial aid. But tuition reform would make it possible for many more such young people living in Tennessee to meet their full potential — realizing their vocational and professional dreams, providing adequately for their own future families, and contributing to the well-being of the larger community and the economy.

From its earliest days our faith tradition has shown a deep concern for those who find themselves strangers in a strange land. We know ourselves to be called to love such strangers – migrants, refugees, trafficked persons or exiles – and to treat them with the same respect and care we give those born among us. We are called to welcome such strangers as children of God and to treat them as our sisters and brothers.

We recognize that private charity has a role to play in responding to this call to welcome the stranger. Many of our congregations are already involved in reaching out to (and being blessed by) immigrant and refugee communities in our midst. In different ways we offer different kinds of help to immigrant adults and children alike, often related to education. For instance, some of us offer English and other life-skills classes to adults, and some tutor elementary and middle-school students. Some of our congregations have taken up contributions to help promising young individuals from low-income families put together enough money to pay the steep rate now charged.

But we also recognize that public policy plays an important role, for good or ill, in welcoming the stranger or in failing to do so. Leadership from elected officials is urgently needed if we are to integrate today’s newcomers on wholesome terms.   HB 675 offers an important opportunity for the Tennessee House to take one important step in that direction. Continuing to relegate too many in this generation of young immigrants to a place in the shadows, at the margin, and under the radar is neither just nor wise.

We hope you will exercise leadership in lending support to HB 675, both for the sake of the aspiring young immigrants who will be directly affected, and for the true benefit of everyone in your district. Wherever these young men and women eventually end up — here in Tennessee, in another state, or in another country — the world will be a better and safer place because of their being given this chance to continue their education and having received this positive and far-sighted support from our community and our state.

Thank you for your attention and concern. Best wishes for a productive legislative session in 2016.

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