Tennessee Legislators Use School Voucher Bill to Back-door In-State Tuition for Illegal Aliens

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed school voucher program establishes an Education Savings Account (ESA) for an individual student. An Educational Savings Account makes taxpayer money available to parents to spend on a wide range of educational services, ranging from tutoring to computer software.  

Governor Lee has publicly stated that his school voucher plan was intended only for “legal residents” of the state and proposed ensuring this by adding a requirement that applicants provide at least one of the documents listed in the state’s E-verify statute.  

The bill’s original version did not require beneficiaries receiving voucher funds to submit any documentation demonstrating lawful presence in the United States. With an estimated 180,000 illegal aliens living in Tennessee, along with repeated legislative efforts to award in-state tuition to illegal alien students, questions were raised about how to prevent taxpayer education funds from being spent on individuals illegally in the U.S.  However, providing  documents required in the E-Verify statute will not cure the problem.

Despite the amendments aimed at proving lawful presence in the U.S., the voucher bill doesn’t include any process to verify documents submitted by the applicants. This opens up the door for applicants to submit fraudulent documentation of alleged lawful presence.  Immigration document fraud has long been a major problem in the United States.  And, Tennessee has not been immune to immigration fraud. In 2017, twenty illegal aliens were discovered working for a Memphis freight company using fake identity and work permit documents. They were indicted on federal document fraud charges. Inevitably, some illegal aliens relying on fraud to work in the U.S. are going to be parents – and there is no indication they won’t resort to the same type of fraud to obtain educational funds for their kids.

A 2017 poll published by The Tennessee Star, consistently showed that Tennessee Republicans solidly opposed extending benefits to non-citizens living in the state. In the six months between the June 2017 Tennessee Star poll and the December 2017 Tennessee Star poll, opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students among likely Tennessee Republican primary voters had actually increased–from 84 percent to 88 percent–while support has decreased–from 11 percent to 6 percent.

During his campaign, Governor Lee stated clearly that he was opposed to offering in-state tuition to illegal alien students and that he would veto the bill that was then pending but failed to pass in the state legislature.

He also campaigned on disincentivizing illegal immigration to Tennessee. A Governor Bill Lee campaign ad asked “Why can’t politicians stop illegal immigration?” and answered, “As a businessman, it seems pretty clear to me. It’s about incentives. Driver’s licenses and free tuition for illegal aliens, lawless sanctuary cities. All policies that would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration. I will oppose every one of them as governor.”

Unfortunately for the Governor his school voucher plan is so soft on immigration fraud that it just isn’t consistent with his other tough-on-immigration promises. 

About Author


Shari Rendall brings to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) over 15 years of experience in government relations and grassroots advocacy. In her former position, Shari led the legislation department in coordinating lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and briefing congressional and administration staff on a wide range of issues. She has also been responsible for grassroots communications and helping state associations devise their legislative strategies. She began her time in D.C. working on Capitol Hill in the office of former Sen. Bob Smith (R-New Hampshire) as a Legislative Aide.


  1. avatar
    Jodi Harrison on

    And this is what most parents were afraid would happen. It’s pretty clear…….he is soft on illegals and Tennesseans are tired of this crap!!!

  2. avatar

    What’s Wrong With Hurting Feelings On Fraud By Illegal Aliens on College Tuition?

    Our colleges have become sanctuary cities for Open Border Party fraud and admission bias scandals by the OBP. The only ones that get real jobs are the professors….

    Don’t believe a word the colleges say….they rob us for high cost tuition.

    • avatar

      Agree. Why can’t we help people of the U.S./citizens? When trying to live honest lives and not doing illegal things. Is all this only for buying votes with taxpayers money? And use that money towards the veterans that faught for our country or where would this country be.

  3. avatar
    Dave Mittner on

    Wow. This site is really full of #*@%.

    All the article does is make the case that the law, as written, doesn’t have much in it to prevent illegal immigrant children from taking advantage of the program. Yet it twists that to claim that legislators are deliberately designing it to back-door tuitions for them.

    Clear misrepresentation and fearmongering.

    If you’re going to accuse someone of deliberately doing something, you’d really better provide evidence of that intent.

    • avatar

      Seems clear those things were left out of the bill. The misrepresentation is what the bill claims to do and what it actually will do.