The University of California is being sued by a group of out-of-state students over its policy of allowing certain illegal immigrant students to pay tuition at the level of California state residents, contending that it is unfair to charge certain legal U.S. citizens at a higher rate than noncitizens.
The UC policy stems from California Assembly Bill 540, passed in 2001, which mandates that public universities in California cannot charge out-of-state fees to immigrant students who attended California high schools for three years and graduated from California high schools.
‘We brought this case to ensure that California follows federal law and to protect the equal rights of U.S. citizens at California universities,’ said Kris Kobach, a lawyer who is part of the legal team representing the 42 UC students.
According to Kobach, the UC policy is in violation of federal law.
‘The primary basis for the lawsuit is a 1996 federal statute that prohibits any state from offering in-state tuition to illegal aliens unless the state also offers in-state tuition to all U.S. citizens,’ Kobach said. ‘California ignored this federal law in 2002 when it began giving in-state tuition to illegal aliens.’
Kobach formerly served in the U.S. Justice Department, where he worked to bring about stronger enforcement of immigration laws. He said that the UC policy is weakening the enforcement of those very immigration laws.
‘This is an example of a handful of states disregarding federal law and undermining law enforcement and treating U.S. citizens unfairly,’ Kobach said.
Kobach believes that the violation of federal law by California lawmakers is intentional.
‘In 2000, the California legislature first passed the same statute and Gray Davis vetoed it because it violated federal law,’ Kobach said. ‘Then the legislature came back in late 2001 and passed the same bill again and Davis let it come into effect without his signature. The legislature knew they were violating federal law but they went and did it anyway.’
California was the first of nine states to offer lower tuition rates to illegal immigrants while maintaining higher rates for out-of-state U.S. citizens.
UC officials do not consider their policy to be unfair to out-of-state students because the affected immigrant students have lived in California and are working to obtain legal immigration status. ‘To get the in-state tuition through this policy you have to satisfy a few criteria: attend a California high school for three years, graduate from a California high school and sign an affidavit that you are legalizing your immigration status,’ said UC spokeswoman Ravi Poorsina.
It is difficult to determine how many illegal immigrants are admitted annually to the UC and how many of them are paying in-state tuition.
‘We don’t really know how many are actually illegal immigrants,’ Poorsina said. ‘Approximately 30 percent of students that are exempted from out-of-state tuition are potentially undocumented students. … The application asks if you are a citizen and, if not, are you in the process of becoming a citizen. They can also mark ‘other.”
Reaction to the policy among UC Irvine students was mixed. Some see reason for making education more affordable for illegal immigrants.
‘As long as the illegal immigrants become legal citizens and pay state taxes, the policy doesn’t seem unfair,’ said Steven Yap, a second-year biological sciences major. ‘By letting them pay in-state tuition rates, you are giving them the opportunity for higher education and possibly contributing to the learning community.’
Bartolo Chen, a second-year biological sciences major, believes that illegal immigrants should not qualify for in-state tuition rates because they do not pay state taxes.
‘Out-of-state students pay more than California residents to compensate for the taxes they don’t pay,’ Chen said. ‘The same should apply with illegal aliens so it’s fair for everyone.’
Kobach hopes that out-of-state students will obtain monetary compensation and that the law will be stricken.
‘What we are asking the court to do is to strike down the California law as a violation of the federal statute, render the law void and fix damages in differences in tuition,’ Kobach said.
As the lawsuit progresses in California’s state court, other out-of-state students will be contacted to ask if they wish to join the lawsuit.