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California court backs in-state tuition for illegal immigrants

Monday's California Supreme Court ruling upholding in-state tuition for illegal immigrants may lead to similar legal challenges elsewhere.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / November 16, 2010

Supporters of the DREAM Act stand on the steps of the San Bernardino, Calif., city hall Sept. 12 during a rally to support the act, which allows young people to become legal US residents after spending two years in college or the military.

Rick Sforza/The Sun/AP/file


Los Angeles

In a decision that added a new twist to the debate surrounding federal versus state control of immigration, the California Supreme Court on Monday ruled that undocumented immigrants can be eligible for reduced in-state tuition at California's public colleges and universities.

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The case, Martinez vs. Regents, challenged a 2001 state law – the California Immigrant Higher Education Act – that gives in-state tuition rates at California’s public colleges to students who complete three years at a California high school and earn a high school diploma or equivalent, regardless of their immigration status.

On Monday the California Supreme Court concluded that the state's method of giving qualified undocumented students in-state tuition rates met the requirements for such established by federal law. The court found that, even though the federal government has established some restrictions on state power, states retain the legal capability to enable undocumented students to have meaningful access to college education.

Several analysts say in-state tuition may now become the new illegal immigration battleground. On Tuesday, for example, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said he would push to give illegal immigrants in-state tuition.

The California decision also begs the question of what the lame duck Congress will do with the DREAM Act – proposed federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship to some illegal immigrants who were brought to the US as children.

Quiz: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

“Absent some action on the federal level – namely passage of the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform – we will see skirmishes like this one in states ... and towns across the US," says Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis. He cites Arizona’s immigration law, Oklahoma’s immigration law, and initiatives in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmer’s Branch, Texas, as examples of places where immigration is already a hot legal topic.

The state funding involved in sending non-citizen residents to school could bring the issue to ballots across the country, adds Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-immigration think tank that seeks lower immigration numbers.

“The bigger question to me is whether other states will come under increasing pressure to do something about this issue politically given the enormous problems they are having with their own budgets,” he says. "It’s the kind of issue that most voters don’t think makes sense when states are struggling to pay for higher education.”

Noting that California has 25,000 undocumented immigrants in its higher education system, he says, “do you really want to be spending hundreds of millions on those who are not even supposed to be in the country?”


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