Rhode Island Legislature Passes In-State Tuition and “Whistleblower” Bills for Illegal Aliens, Leaves Driver’s Licenses for Later
FAIR Take | July 2021
On the last day of the legislative session, July 1, the Rhode Island State legislature passed two bills to provide benefits to illegal aliens – an in-state tuition bill and a bill that provides employment protection for whistleblowers. The bill providing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens passed the Senate but did not receive a vote in the House of Representatives.
House Bill (H.) 5238, sponsored by Representative Grace Diaz (D-Providence), grants illegal aliens the in-state tuition rate at Rhode Island’s public colleges and universities. To be eligible, illegal aliens must have lived in Rhode Island for at least three years and either graduated from a Rhode Island high school or obtained a GED in Rhode Island.
The bill first received a hearing in the House Education Committee on February 24. The Committee decided to “hold for further study,” which in New England legislatures is usually a way to kill a bill. However, it was revived on June 4 and five days later the committee sent it to the House floor. H. 5238 passed the House on June 16 along a party-line vote of 63 to 9, with 5 abstentions. It passed the Senate 37 to 0 on July 1 with only one senator abstaining.
Since 2011, Rhode Island has been providing in-state tuition for illegal aliens under an administrative rule adopted by its Board of Governors for Higher Education. However, H. 5238 now enshrines the policy into state law making it more difficult to reverse.
Annual in-state tuition at public institutions of higher education in Rhode Island averages $10,023 while the out-of-state average is $23,399, a difference of $13,376 or more than 130 percent.
The legislature also passed Senate Bill (S.) 550, which expands state “whistleblower" protections for employees reporting illegal or inappropriate conduct by their employers to include reporting such employees to immigration authorities, even if they are illegal aliens. Under current state law, whistleblowers can sue to recover actual damages for their employers for firing them or taking other adverse employment actions, but S. 550 allows them to sue for triple damages. In addition to incentivizing more lawsuits, the bill will also make it more difficult for employers who are legitimately trying to comply with federal law and hire only a legal workforce to fire any illegal aliens they later discover working for them.
Both bills have now been sent to Governor Daniel McKee (D), who is expected to sign them into law.
Meanwhile, S. 190, a bill authorizing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens, passed the Senate along party lines on June 24 by a vote of 28 to 10. On June 25, Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) said S. 190 wouldn’t receive a vote in the House.
While the Speaker claimed he agreed with the “general concept" of the driver’s license bill he would not bring the bill to the House floor for a vote because he said it arrived too late, since the budget had already passed. He argued that passing the bill would make it an “unfunded mandate” since the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) would be faced with additional costs to implement the bill and it should be considered during the 2022 budget cycle.
The Senate bill's House cosponsor, Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), expressed outrage at the Speaker's decision and Rep. Williams comments were supported by Lt. Governor Sabina Matos (D). FAIR expects the legislature will consider a driver’s license bill when it reconvenes in January 2022, or possibly during a special session later this year.
During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on S. 190 on June 21, Terry Gorman of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement testified against it, saying “[i]f people had to prove that they were in the United States legally, all these people wouldn't be coming here. The only reason they're flocking here now is because we're inviting them in. The poor counties have all sorts of distressful situations. But the United States shouldn't be the solution." FAIR staff also submitted written testimony opposing the bill.