The California State University system must begin charging illegal immigrants the same higher education fees as out-of-staters, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said Tuesday in a ruling that could cost undocumented students an extra $7,380 a year.
If not appealed, the decision would force the 20-campus Cal State system in line with policies at the University of California and the community colleges. However, Cal State officials said they were uncertain how to react because of a contradictory order last spring from a Superior Court judge in Alameda County.
Tuesday's decision by Judge Robert H. O'Brien could affect about 800 of the 361,000 Cal State students, requiring them to pay $8,688 this year for a full load of courses. Currently, students who are illegal immigrants pay the same $1,308 as legal residents.
At Cal State Fullerton, however, campus officials said it was impossible to tell how many of its more than 24,500 students might be affected by the ruling because the previous court ruling precludes them from inquiring about citizenship status.
"If they number in the hundreds at Fullerton, I would be very surprised," said James C. Blackburn, the university's director of admissions and records.
Blackburn said administrators expect to receive legal advice on how to comply with the new ruling sometime this week.
"We want to do the right thing, the legal thing," he added. "But if someone were to walk up to me and say, 'Jim, prove you are a U.S. citizen,' well I don't really have a large number of documents on my person to prove it."
O'Brien's ruling allows Cal State some leeway to grant in-state status to students who are applying for legal residency or who might qualify for it under federal immigration rules. Cal State "must examine whether an alien is precluded legal domicile status," he wrote.
The screening of immigrants may be an enormous task, said Linda MacAllister, a Cal State attorney. "We are not immigration officers, that's not our mission. We are educators," she said.
Attorney Richard L. Knickerbocker, who represented a coalition of taxpayer, immigration reform and conservative groups that filed the suit, said, "I think we couldn't have had a better result. I think the decision is well reasoned." The coalition contends that illegal immigrants take precious class seats from citizens and are unfairly subsidized by taxpayers.
Leslie Dutton, president of the American Assn. of Women, one of the coalition groups, challenged Cal State's estimate that only about 800 students would be affected. "Then why are (Cal State officials) expending so much taxpayers' money to fight this? I don't think they'd bother for just a few students," Dutton asserted.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund which fought the suit with Cal State, said the decision would cost taxpayers more than it saves. MALDEF attorney Elizabeth Guillen cited the personnel needed to screen students' immigration status and the troubled lives of students possibly forced out of higher education by the stiffer fees.
"Not being able to go to a state university could really put a dent in your future, in plans to make something of yourself and contribute to the society," Guillen said.
She said it would be wrong to treat such students like out-of-staters because many of them emigrated as young children and graduated from California high schools.
A decision about appealing the decision is expected to be made by the Cal State system's Board of Trustees next week.
MALDEF is also undecided about filing an appeal on an issue that has a long and complicated legal history.
In 1985, an Alameda County judge prohibited the use of immigration status to deny lower fees to Cal State students who had been in the state more than a year. Again citing the state Constitution's guarantees of equal protection, that judge last May reaffirmed his ruling in the "Leticia A." case.
In a separate case involving the University of California an appellate court ruled in 1990 that UC should charge out-of-state fees to undocumented students and the state Supreme Court allowed that appeals case to stand. UC and the community colleges now follow that ruling, known as the "Bradford" case after a UC employee.