Courtesy of Florida Immigrant Coalition

Diego Ramirez is a soft-spoken Florida high school senior who longs to study civil engineering next year in college.

Until Thursday, there was just one problem.

Ramirez, 17, is undocumented, which means he has been barred from accessing financial aid and paying in-state tuition rates. With college costs rising, higher education seemed like a pipe dream.

“I felt hopeless,” he said quietly, during a phone interview from the Miami area.

His dreams are set to become reality, though.

After much politicking and dallying, the Florida Senate on Thursday afternoon passed a bill 26-13 to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. The House is expected to pass the bill tomorrow and then it will go to the governor's desk for a signature.

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“I have hope now,” Ramirez said, as he attended a party hosted by the Florida Immigrant Coalition to watch the vote come in. “I might be the first in my family to go to college and graduate.”

Battling for equal opportunities

Ramirez came to the United States from Mexico as a nine-year-old and has lived in Florida for a half dozen years with his mother and older sister. The family migrated and picked crops until his mother landed a job at a nursery a few years ago. The pay is meager and as desperately as she wants to send her son to college, Ramirez’ mother cannot begin to afford the tuition payments. But the nursery job at is more stable than crop-picking and offered the family a chance to finally put down roots in the Miami area.

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Ramirez’ sister, now 19, wanted to attend college but couldn’t afford it and knew she needed to help her mother pay the bills. She works in the same nursery.

“I don’t want that to happen to me, too,” Ramirez said. “I have big dreams of going to college and studying engineering. But that dream fades with out-of-state tuition. Everything was against my dream.”

He’s been accepted at Miami Dade College and says that, “now with this coming out, I hope I can start in the summer.”

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The legislation

The bill will allow undocumented students who have attended a Florida high school for three years prior to graduation to pay in-state tuition at public universities, which runs about a quarter of what DREAMers currently pay.

“It means a lot to everybody,” he added. “My sister, my mom, we really appreciate it, and I will give back to the state, keep everything in the state. People, jobs, I will help a lot.”

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Oslayda Lopez, a 19-year-old undocumented student and member of Students Working for Equal Rights, told Fusion last month about the financial barriers to higher education she faced as an undocumented student. Upon hearing of the bill’s passage, Lopez said, “It’s really awesome. A lot of people are counting on it.”

Mayra Rubio, 23, says she “gave up” on college after graduating from high school in 2009. She arrived in Florida from Mexico when she was just three months old, yet was not allowed to pay in-state tuition as an undocumented immigrant.

She works several jobs helping her father farm and sell produce, but it isn't enough to cover the cost of college.

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“It was upsetting because I was very discouraged and angry,” she said. “The rest of my classmates were moving on and I was still in the same place.”

After the White House announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows DREAMers to apply for reprieves from deportation, Rubio was able to use her new DACA status to apply for a tuition waiver at Miami Dade College.

But Rubio needs to reapply for DACA status in December, and she must reapply for the tuition waiver each semester. Miami Dade is just one of two schools in Florida that even offer such waivers to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state rates.

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“It’s so scary because if my deferred action is not renewed, I’ll no longer be able to go to college,” she said.

Victory for Florida DREAMers

The bill’s passage, by a Republican legislature no less, will change that. Rubio will be able to pay in-state tuition. She hopes to finish her degree and open her own international agricultural business.

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Republican Governor Rick Scott, engaged in a tight election race against Democratic candidate Charlie Crist and desperate for Latino voters, has been vocally supportive of the legislation and is expected to sign it into law.

Florida will join Texas, California and more than a dozen other states that offer provisions that allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Virginia announced earlier this week that deferred action recipients in the state qualify for in-state tuition.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.