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In California, the state supreme court has ruled that illegal immigrants can continue to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. The ruling is controversial. Critics say it benefits students who shouldn't be there in the first place.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: The court ruling affects students like 20-year-old John. He's asked us not to use his surname because he's worried about revealing his immigration status. He's a bright-faced freshman at a junior college in the San Francisco Bay Area.

JOHN: My mom is Filipino, and my dad is El Salvadoran. And they met in Canada, and that's where they gave birth to me.

GONZALES: John's family came to the United States, where he attended California schools. By the time he graduated from high school two years ago, his undocumented status left him in a quandary. His mother was ill, and he was broke.

JOHN: I didn't think I could go to college, so it was just really depressing. I didn't know what I could do here. I was thinking of moving back to Canada, but at the same time, we have no money and no family in Canada, so my options were so limited. It was just - I was really depressed.

GONZALES: But through friends and mentors, John learned he could afford a local junior college by paying an in-state tuition rate. That's a discount available under California law to anyone who attends high school here for at least three years. That law took effect eight years ago, says Ethan Schulman, an attorney who successfully defended it before the state supreme court.

Mr. ETHAN SCHULMAN (Attorney): The law on its face makes no distinction on the basis of residence and it makes no distinction on the basis of immigration status. It simply refers to students who have attended high school for three or more years in our state and graduated.

GONZALES: The law was challenged on behalf of 42 out-of-state students who sued the University of California because they are charged a higher rate of tuition. In-state tuition at U.C. campuses is $10,300. Out-of-state students are charged $33,000.

Attorney Michael J. Brady says the California law is in conflict with a federal law that says illegal immigrants may not receive benefits based on residency, or benefits unavailable to U.S. citizens.

Mr. MICHAEL J. BRADY (Attorney): Because the federal law clearly indicated the intention of Congress to stop states from granting discounted or in-state tuition to unlawful aliens.

GONZALES: But the attorney for the university, Ethan Schulman, says since illegal immigrant students are ineligible for any kind of financial aid, in-state tuition rates are a small break.

Mr. SCHULMAN: Most of these students are students who come from very reduced economic circumstances. Their parents are cleaning our offices and working in our fields. To expect them to be able pay out of their own pockets without any benefit of financial aid that's available to everybody else is unrealistic in the extreme.

GONZALES: The California Supreme Court ruling was unanimous. That could discourage legal challenges in other states where illegal immigrant students pay in-state tuition. But critics such as Michael J. Brady say they have every intention of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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