A class-action lawsuit has been filed in Miami by Florida residents being charged out-of-state tuition rates to attend state colleges and universities. The students are American citizens — children who were born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants — and they say Florida's regulations violate their constitutional rights.
Wendy Ruiz, a 19-year-old sophomore at Miami Dade College with a 3.7 grade point average, has a plan. She expects to graduate later this year with a two-year associate's degree in Biology.
Ruiz pays 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, where she'll have to pay almost $18,000 in out-of-state tuition per year.
"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 on money, you know? And I should be in-state, not out-of-state," Ruiz says.
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 Florida is not giving her a fair shake.
"It's really unfair," she says. "Many students who are being charged out of state, they aren't going to school because of how much money [it costs]."
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; hundreds of Floridians at least are potentially affected.
But this isn't about the Dream Act — the measure that would put illegal immigrants who come to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship if they fulfill several requirements.
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.
"We're talking about students, all of whom are United States citizens," Galloni says. "And I think this is something that people can come together on; that, when you're a U.S. citizen, you're a U.S. citizen [and] have the same rights, the same obligations as any other U.S. citizen."
Galloni says once you have citizenship, you deserve to be treated equally.
It's an issue that's come up in some other states as well. 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 might take matters into their own hands.
State Rep. 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 decides to rewrite the regulations.
"You know I would be extremely happy if we didn't have to push this legislation, if there was some policy fix or some administrative fix that could be done," Fullwood says. "I would be one of the happiest people around."
That's also something Ruiz, the student, 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.