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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now to a class-action lawsuit in Miami filed by college students who say they shouldn't be charged out-of-state tuition because they live in Florida and are American citizens. They were born, however, to illegal immigrants. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami that the students say Florida's regulations violate their constitutional rights.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Wendy Ruiz is a 19-year-old with a plan.

WENDY RUIZ: Since, like, I was a little girl, I wanted to be a podiatrist.

ALLEN: She's now a sophomore at Miami Dade College with a 3.7 grade point average. She expects to graduate later this year with a two-years associate's degree in Biology.

Ruiz is paying three times what most other students pay for tuition at Miami Dade College. When she enrolled last year, she was told that because her parents lack legal immigration papers, she has to pay out-of-state tuition rates - nearly $5,000 per semester.

She's been able to pay that by working multiple jobs, and with help from her parents. But next year, she hopes to enroll at a more expensive state school: Florida International University.

RUIZ: And at FIU, I would have to pay, like, around almost $18,000 out-of-state. I can't afford that. So that's why I was, like, I need to speak up, because I can't pay for this amount of money, you know? And I should be in-state, not out-of-state.

ALLEN: As a good student, Ruiz qualifies for scholarships. Paying out-of-state tuition rates may slow her down, but she expects eventually to fulfill her dream of becoming a podiatrist. But she feels that Florida is not giving her a fair shake.

RUIZ: I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. I'm in-state, not out-of-state. It's really unfair. Many students actually that are being charged out-of-state, they're not going to school because of how much money.

ALLEN: Ruiz is one of five students - all U.S.-born and children of illegal immigrants - who are suing the state, claiming their rights as citizens are being violated.

It's difficult to say how many students in Florida fall into this category. The state law has been in effect now for just a few years, and certainly hundreds of Floridians, at least, are potentially affected.

This is not about the Dream Act. Florida, like many states and Congress, has considered a law to extend in-state tuition rates to residents who are not citizens, but were brought to the U.S. at a young age by their parents.

Tania Galloni with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Miami says unlike the Dream Act, the principles in this case should be less controversial.

TANIA GALLONI: We're talking about students, all of whom are United States citizens. And I think that this is something that people can come together on, that when you're a U.S. citizen, you're a U.S. citizen. You have the same rights, the same obligations as any other U.S. citizen. We don't create subclasses of American citizens in the United States. So once you have citizenship, you deserve to be treated equally.

ALLEN: It's an issue that's come up in some other states. Both California and Colorado resolved similar disputes by extending in-state tuition rates to the students in question.

In Florida, the policy is the result not of a law, but regulations handed down by the state Education Department and the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education. Neither body is commenting on the lawsuit, but it's possible Florida lawmakers may take matters into their own hands.

State Representative Reggie Fullwood, a Democrat, introduced a bill that would extend in-state tuition to citizens raised in Florida, regardless of their parents' immigration status. But he says it's possible the problem could be fixed if the education commissioner and the governor decide to rewrite the regulations.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE REGGIE FULLWOOD: You know, I would be extremely happy if we didn't have to push this legislation, if there was some, you know, policy fix or some, you know, administrative fix that could be done. I would be one of the happiest people around.

ALLEN: That's also something Miami Dade college student Wendy Ruiz is hoping for: a speedy rules change that would make college affordable and enable her to get on with her plans for a career in podiatry.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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