In-State Tuition for Immigrants Prompts Lawsuit

A California lawsuit questions whether undocumented students should receive in-state tuition rates at public universities. Reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopez of member station KPCC explores how some California students are being affected.

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From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Not since President Ronald Reagan legalized millions of undocumented residents 20 years ago has the debate over immigration been as heated as it is right now. This debate has now moved to some college campuses. Reporter Aldolfo Guzman Lopez of member station KPCC explores how some California students are finding themselves caught in the middle of this controversy.

Mr. ALDOLFO GUZMAN LOPEZ (Reporter, KPCC): College is expensive.

Ms. CINDY (Student): Tuition is just like the hardest, because every 20th you have to pay before the course starts. So it's like almost $3,000 for three months, which is a lot of money.

LOPEZ: That's Cindy. She asked us not to use her last name. She is a California resident and political science major at UCLA. She expects her two years at UCLA to add up to almost $30,000. But college is a lot more expensive for out-of-students. Suzanne Katijiare(ph) from Hawaii, paid over $80,000 for her BA from UC Davis.

Ms. SUZANNE KATIJIARE (Student): My parents helped me with a large portion of my tuition and with everyday college expenses. But they in turn, in order to get that money, had to take out their own loan.

LOPEZ: But there's another big difference between Cindy and Suzanne. Suzanne, the student carrying the heavier financial load, is a U.S. citizen. Cindy is an undocumented immigrant. She was four years old when her Peruvian parents overstayed their tourist visa and settled in California. Despite her illegal status, Cindy pays what is called in-state tuition, thanks to a 2002 California law. It guarantees tuition breaks to any state resident who meets educational standards and to undocumented students who seek legalization.

Suzanne, on the other hand, is one of 42 plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that is seeking to overturn that law.

Ms. KATIJIARE: I don't understand how someone who came to this country illegally can be getting a huge monetary benefit, while someone who has done everything legally is denied that.

LOPEZ: Suzanne's lawyer, Michael Brady, goes further. He says the tuition breaks for undocumented students work against national policy.

Mr. MICHAEL BRADY (Attorney): If people can come here and have the prospect of easily getting into college or university and going to college here, it's going to encourage illegal immigration.

LOPEZ: The case has spurred email bulletins and strategy meetings among a tight knit network of undocumented students up and down the state.

Mr. JORGE RIOS (Student): Okay. So the lawsuit was filed during finals week of last quarter...

LOPEZ: That's Jorge Rios, a third-year economics major, briefing a room full of undocumented UCLA students. Many of them were at the top of their high school class. Some were valedictorians. All have been here most of their lives. Rios says denying undocumented students the tuition break would hurt their prospects and hurt California.

Mr. RIOS: So what happens, you don't end up going to college. You end up with a low paying job, with no way to legalize your status; with no college education; and in the long run when you have kids, you are probably going to have to depend on welfare.

LOPEZ: Stanford education professor Anthony Antonio agrees with Rios. He points out that colleges are becoming a battleground in the national immigration debate, because a college degree is more and more crucial these days.

Mr. ANTHONY ANTONIO (Professor, Stanford University): College is becoming universal in this country. Nearly 70 percent, or so, of all high school graduates attend an institution of higher education after they graduate. Therefore, the stakes with regard to higher education are increasing. And as a public good, there is going to be some conflicts and struggle over it as a public resource.

LOPEZ: Michael Brady, who filed a class action lawsuit, points to a 1996 federal immigration law. It forbids states from dispensing benefits to undocumented residents unless U.S. citizens are eligible too. Lawyers for the University of California and California State University filed a response to the suit this month. They say California didn't violate that law, because the tuition break doesn't constitute a benefit. Whatever happens in California courts, Brady says, the complaint could be an issue for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide.

For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman Lopez, in Los Angeles.

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