California’s public colleges and universities can continue charging in-state tuition to students who have graduated from the state’s high schools but are in the United States illegally, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Monday.
In a unanimous decision written by Ming Chin, one of the court’s more conservative justices, the Supreme Court upheld a state law, known as Assembly Bill 540, that allows students regardless of their immigration status to pay the lower in-state rate at public colleges as long as they attended California high schools for at least three years and graduated.
The attorney who unsuccessfully challenged the law said he is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Regardless of whether the nation’s highest court chooses to review the case known as Martinez v. UC Regents, Monday’s decision is likely to reverberate nationwide. Nine other states have laws similar to AB 540, allowing illegal immigrants who live in the state to pay the taxpayer-subsidized tuition rate reserved for state residents. Kris Kobach, the lawyer who challenged California’s AB 540, has also fought tuition laws in Kansas and Nebraska.
College tuition marks just one way states and municipalities have begun taking immigration enforcement into their own hands.
In April, lawmakers in Arizona passed a sweeping law that requires local law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally, and detain them until their legal status is proven. Kobach was a chief drafter of the Arizona law, which is pending before a federal appeals court.
In 2006, the city of Hazleton, Pa., passed ordinances forbidding landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. The laws were later struck down in federal court.
The debate in California comes from the other end of the ideological perspective, with lawmakers arguing that the children of illegal immigrants shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ crimes and that the state’s economy benefits from having a more educated population.
Despite the diverging politics fueling the debates in different states, the actions reflect a similar need for federal guidance, said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis law school.
“Until the federal government acts on immigration, we’re going to continue to get state and local governments either attacking immigrants or being attacked by groups saying we’re favoring immigrants,” Johnson said. “In my mind, that’s why we need federal action.”
The Martinez lawsuit was brought in 2005 by Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Carlsbad Republican, as part of a group of 42 parents and students. He argued it wasn’t fair that his children U.S. citizens who went to high school in Virginia would have to pay the higher out-of-state tuition rate when they enrolled in a California college, while children who went to high school in California but were in the United States illegally got the discounted in-state rate.
“The state of California is actively pursing a reward for those who are here illegally while denying the same opportunity to those immigrants and U.S. citizens who are playing by the rules,” Bilbray said.
The case examines whether AB 540 violates a federal provision saying that states cannot provide illegal immigrants any higher education benefit that is not also given to U.S. citizens. The California Supreme Court ruled that AB 540 does not give illegal immigrants a special benefit because it also applies to U.S. citizens who go to school in California for example, those from other states who go to boarding school here.
These students “have earned the opportunity to attend UC,” said a statement from UC President Mark Yudof. “Their accomplishments should not be disregarded or their futures jeopardized.”
Bilbray lost his case in Yolo Superior Court, won it in the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, and lost again Monday in the state’s highest court. The timing, Bilbray said, “adds insult to injury” because it comes as California’s public universities are voting on tuition increases 15 percent at California State University and 8 percent at the University of California.
“The state has enough money to give in-state tuition to people who are illegally in the state but they’re crying that they’re so short of money they have to raise rates on people who are legally present,” Bilbray said.
UC data show that the majority of students who have benefitted from AB 540 are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants. Illegal immigrants made up three-tenths of a percent of the 220,000 students UC served in 2007-08. At CSU and California community colleges, illegal immigrants also make up less than 1 percent of the student body.
Illegal immigrants do not qualify for financial aid at public colleges in California. In-state tuition this year is $10,302 annually at UC, $4,335 annually at CSU and $26 per credit at community colleges. Out-of-state tuition is $20,000 higher at UC and $11,000 higher at CSU.
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