Local News

Young adults learn to surf changing political tides

— Getting bills passed is an art and a science, the reason people pay lobbyists millions of dollars. But for some young Floridians, the 2014 session was a breakthrough in succeeding in the legislative arena.

After more than a decade of trying, students watched as lawmakers passed a bill (HB 851) granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who have attended Florida secondary schools for at least three years. Gov. Rick Scott has promised to sign the measure.

“It took a lot of courage to do what they did,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican whose support powered the bill to passage. “They’re the face of what we were trying to articulate.”

Wearing orange mortarboards and brandishing their high-school diplomas, the students repeated their stories of hard work and good grades, their dreams of higher education colliding with the cost of out-of-state tuition. When HB 851 stalled in the Senate, they held a sit-in outside Senate President Don Gaetz’s office, calling on him to allow a floor vote. He did.

Lawmakers also passed a bill (HB 755) allowing Jose Godinez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant with a law degree, to be admitted to The Florida Bar. Scott signed the measure on Monday.

The session also held disappointments for young activists. Members of the Dream Defenders, known for their 31-day sit-in outside Scott’s office last summer, saw little progress on their key issues of repealing Florida’s “stand your ground” self-defense law and ending zero-tolerance policies in public schools, both of which, they say, target minority students.

“We were constantly having to fight not only to be seen but to be heard,” acknowledged Ciara Taylor, political director of the Dream Defenders.

Meanwhile, Florida Youth Shine, an advocacy group for young people who have been in foster care, convinced lawmakers to help teens in foster care learn to drive. It was just a year after the Legislature passed two groundbreaking foster-care bills, the so-called “normalcy bill” giving foster families more of a right to make decisions for their foster children, and a measure giving kids in care the option of staying until age 21.

“They can get in places I can’t,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First and adviser to Youth Shine. “It really helps the legislators to see from the child’s perspective how it affects them.”

Since the group started coming to Tallahassee in 2007, Spudeas said, it has grown from about 30 members to 250 statewide.

This year, 43 members spent Children’s Week at the Capitol lobbying more than 60 legislators. They backed a provision in the child welfare bill (SB 1666) that would keep siblings together in foster care whenever possible.