Calif. Supreme Court rules for illegal immigrants in tuition case

The California Supreme Court Monday unanimously upheld a state law granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented residents who attended high school for at least three years in California.

The Los Angeles Times reported last night that this was the first ruling of its kind in the country.

Lawyers for groups opposing the tuition break said they will appeal to The United States Supreme Court.

From The Times:

“Throughout the country, the California court decision will have reverberations,” said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Assn. of State Colleges. He predicted that it would discourage challenges to similar policies in other states.

Federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving college benefits based on residency and not provided to all citizens.

A lawyer for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, which sided with the challengers in the case, said the ruling failed to acknowledge “clear tension between federal law and the state’s special financial benefits for illegal immigrant students.” The case is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“California is not in sync with the federal mandate against giving Brownie points for being an illegal immigrant,” said Ralph Kasarda, an attorney with the foundation.

But state officials insist that there is no conflict with federal law. Under California’s nonresident tuition exemption, approved in 2001, public colleges can offer in-state tuition to those who attended California high schools for at least three years. Some of those students are illegal immigrants. Others are U.S. citizens who attended high school in California but whose families may now live elsewhere, or those who moved out of the state to study or attended boarding schools in California.

Depending on what college they attend, the tuition break can save students as much as $20,000 a year or more. Opponents of the tuition deal say it costs the state upwards of $200 million a year, but that number may assume that all of the students in question would otherwise pay out-of-state rates or be replaced by students who did.

College officials and students interviewed by The Times supported the decision:

“The higher the number of degree-holders living in our state, the more likely we are to meet future workforce demands,” said statewide community colleges Vice Chancellor Terri Carbaugh.

Undocumented students expressed relief at the ruling. Illegal immigrants are not entitled to government financial aid.

Diego Sepulveda, 23, a fourth-year, undocumented student at UCLA, said he would have been unable to pay the higher tuition. He commutes by bus from his family’s Huntington Park home to the Westwood campus and depends on his factory worker parents, part-time jobs and some private donations to help pay the bills.

“I’m breaking a lot of the barriers my family never thought it was possible to do,” said Sepulveda, who hopes to attend law school.

University officials also were gratified. “Through their hard work and perseverance, these students have earned the opportunity to attend UC,” said UC President Mark G. Yudof. “Their accomplishments should not be disregarded or their futures jeopardized.”

Christine Helwick, general counsel for the Cal State system, said most undocumented students entered the United States when they were young and attended schools here. “It would have been foolhardy to tell them they are no longer welcome when they get to higher education,” she said.

The San Francisco Chronicle today praised the decision in an editorial.

By unanimous vote, the state Supreme Court injected fairness and balance into the debate over immigration policy. The court upheld a law giving illegal immigrants who have attended three years of high school a break on college tuition in California.

The measure – much like a local debate over the possible deportation of a Bay Area college student – gets at the unfairness of this country’s border policies. At issue are high school and college kids, brought to this country illegally by parents, who are subjected to laws that isolate or reject them.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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