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Tuition deal for immigrants upheld

California can offer noncitizens an in-state rate, high court rules.

June 07, 2011|Larry Gordon and David Savage

LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing California to continue granting reduced, in-state tuition to college students who are illegal immigrants is likely to bolster similar proposals across the nation, as well as a California measure to provide financial aid for the undocumented.

The high court's action Monday upholds a California Supreme Court ruling last year that said the state's policy is legal because it grants in-state tuition on the basis of students' graduation from California high schools, not on their citizenship. A conservative immigration-law group appealed the decision, arguing that the discount -- worth as much as $23,000 annually at University of California schools -- was preferential treatment that violated federal law.

Monday's ruling was a victory for the estimated 41,000 students -- less than 1% of total enrollment -- at UC, Cal State and community college campuses who qualify for the in-state discount under the 10-year-old state law. Some of those are illegal immigrants and others are U.S. citizens who attended California high schools but whose families then moved. UC estimates that 600 of them are undocumented; Cal State and community colleges say they don't have that information.

Twelve other states offer similar policies, and several more are considering it. Advocates in those states will be encouraged by the court's action, despite the political controversies, said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, June 09, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
California tuition: A June 7 article in Section A about the U.S. Supreme Court's action allowing California to continue granting in-state tuition to undocumented students referred to the action as a ruling. The court's move was not a ruling; justices dismissed an appeal of California law.

"I think it's going to send out a very strong message that the challenge was baseless and without merit, and make it harder for other groups to put forth challenges," he said. "And it certainly strengthens the arguments for the policy and legislation."

But attorneys who challenged the California law, AB 540, said the case is not necessarily over. "Justice will have to wait for another day," said Michael Hethmon, general counsel with the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of 42 students who are U.S. citizens.

Hethmon said that with several similar challenges underway in other states, the high court may eventually have to reconsider the issue. In Alabama, legislators passed a law last week not only denying in-state tuition to illegal immigrants but also barring their enrollment in colleges and universities; the state's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley has expressed support for the bill. In Massachusetts, a voter referendum campaign is underway to repeal its in-state tuition law.

Michael Brady, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the California case, said taxpayers need to be better informed about the costly effects of both the tuition discount policy and the proposal to give undocumented college students public financial aid. "The state is in desperate financial shape and can't assume any more debts or obligations," he said.

The annual in-state discount is about $23,000 at UC, $11,000 at Cal State and $4,400 at community colleges.

Undocumented students and their advocates said they would use the court's action to push for passage of the California Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to receive campus-based aid and the state's Cal Grants to help pay their bills at UC, Cal State and community colleges. It could cost about $32.2 million annually, according to an analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The measure, proposed by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), recently passed the state Assembly and is being considered in the Senate. The Legislature had approved a similar measure, but then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it last year. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, "supports the principles of the Dream Act and would closely consider any legislation that reaches his desk," spokesman Evan Westrup said Monday.

Ernesto Zumaya, a UCLA English major whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was an infant, said he was "extremely happy" about the Supreme Court action. But even with the in-state discount, he said, he had to take time off from school last year because he cannot obtain UC aid or Cal Grants. Zumaya, who graduated from Montebello High School, said he found some private scholarships to help him pay UCLA tuition and fees of about $11,300 this year.

Zumaya, 24, is active in a group advocating for the state Dream Act. The financial aid, he said, "would give us more opportunities to continue our education, not only for those who are in the university now, but also high school and middle school students who think they can't attend because they see no resources for them."

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