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Supreme Court upholds in-state tuition for undocumented students

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JUNE 06, 2011

After nearly six years of petitions and appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on Monday that challenged a state law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at California universities and colleges.

The plaintiffs — 42 former UC, CSU and California Community College students who each paid out-of-state tuition — took issue with California Assembly Bill 540, which was passed in October 2001 and grants in-state tuition for higher education, regardless of citizenship or residency, to students who graduate from a California high school, among other requirements.

The group of students — all of whom are U.S. citizens — filed a formal request Feb. 14 to take their case Martinez et al. v. UC Board of Regents et al. before the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs contend the board owes them damages equal to the difference between residential and nonresidential tuition and that AB 540 unconstitutionally affords illegal immigrants a financial edge over citizens.

The students claimed AB 540 violated the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which requires states to provide in-state tuition benefits to all U.S. citizens if such benefits are given to illegal immigrants. However, the California Supreme Court upheld AB 540 in November, overturning a previous decision.

After the lawsuit was filed in December 2005, the case went through nearly six years in the legal system before this week’s final decision.

In 2006, the Yolo County Superior Court ruled in favor of the board. However, that decision was overturned unanimously on Sept. 15, 2008, through the California Court of Appeals 3rd District in Sacramento. In November 2010, the case was brought to the California Supreme Court, where AB 540 was upheld. The plaintiffs then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari — an appeal to a higher court to take up a case — with the U.S. Supreme Court in February.

“We also are gratified that students who have attended and graduated from high school in California and who have achieved the academic accomplishments to qualify for UC will continue to have access to affordable higher education opportunities, irrespective of their immigration status,” said Charles Robinson, the UC’s general counsel and vice president for legal affairs, in a statement.

Ethan Schulman, a lawyer who worked on behalf of the defense, said he was pleased with the outcome and that the Supreme Court’s decision to not review the case will allow AB 540 to continue being implemented by state universities and colleges.

“It recognizes the importance of an affordable college education to California high school graduates, including undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country by their parents as children illegally and are entitled to the same opportunities as other high school graduates,” he said.

However, Michael Brady, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said the ruling was not fair to U.S. citizens.

“The thing that shocks most people when they hear about the case is they can understand why sometimes illegal immigrants and American citizens should be treated equally,” Brady said. “They cannot understand how an American citizen can be treated 400 percent worse than an illegal immigrant — because an American citizen has to pay tuition 400 percent higher than an illegal immigrant … That doesn’t seem fair.”

Allie Bidwell is the news editor.

JUNE 17, 2011