Students march at UCLA in 2008, advocating higher minority enrollment… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a challenge to California's policy of granting reduced, in-state tuition at its colleges and universities to graduates of its high schools who are illegal immigrants.
The justices turned down an appeal from lawyers for a conservative immigration-law group that contended "preferential treatment" for illegal immigrants violated federal immigration law. They cited a little-known provision in a 1986 law that barred states from giving "any postsecondary benefit" to an "alien who is not lawfully present in the United States ? on the basis of residence within a state."
But last year, in the first ruling of its kind, the California Supreme Court said the state's policy did not conflict with federal law because the tuition benefit turned on a student's high school graduation, not his or her residency. In the 2001 law, the state said it would give in-state tuition to a qualified student who attended a high school in California for three years and graduated.
Under this interpretation, a student from Oregon who graduates from a high school in California could obtain in-state tuition in the University of California system. In defense of its law, California education officials said that many of those who took advantage of its in-state tuition policy were U.S. citizens who hailed from other states.
Overall, the state said about 41,000 students last year took advantage of this special tuition rule, but the vast majority of those were students at a community college. In 2009, the 10-campus UC system said 2,019 students paid in-state tuition under the terms of the state law. Of these, about 600 were believed to be illegal immigrants.
The court's action turning down the appeal is not an official ruling, but it leaves in place laws in 11 other states that permit illegal immigrants to obtain in-state tuition. They are Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.
Another 12 states have explicitly refused to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. For its part, the federal government -- through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations -- has taken no steps to enforce the federal provision.
Citing this confusion over the meaning of federal law, the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute had appealed the California case to the Supreme Court. Kris W. Kobach, a Kansas lawyer and counsel for the group, said the federal law "will become a dead letter in any state where the legislature is willing to play semantic games to defeat the objectives of Congress."
But the justices refused to hear his appeal in the case of Martinez vs. Board of Regents of the University of California.