Lawsuit aims to give in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants children

For some students, the process of proving residency to the Office of the Registrar may become a lot more paper-free.

A class action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) last month could allow children of undocumented immigrants who are U.S. citizens the right to pay in-state tuition at universities.

Now, they wait for a response from the defendants, Florida Board of Governors Chancellor Frank Brogan and Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, before the case moves to the courts.

Spokespeople from both the Board of Governors and the Education Commissioner’s office said they were unable to comment due to pending legal action.

Currently, under Florida Statutes Section 1009.21, which establishes the classification of residency or non-residency for tuition purposes, dependent students must prove their parents residency within the state to be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their own citizenship.

The suit would no longer require U.S. citizens to prove their parents’ resident status.

Jerri Katzerman, SPLC director of educational advocacy and an attorney for the case’s plaintiffs – students in the Miami-Dade area – said the statute denies U.S. citizens the rights and privileges granted to them by citizenship. “We represent clients who are being discriminated against,” she said. “Our impetus is to have an illegal statute declared unconstitutional.”

Katzerman said the statute violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which contains a clause granting the equal protection of rights to all citizens. Further, she said, it violates the Constituion’s Supremacy Clause, which grants the Constitution supremacy over state statutes.

According to the Office of the Registrar’s website, USF is required to “obtain documentation of 12 months of legal residence before reclassifying (a student) as a resident for tuition purposes.” Dependent students must provide documentation for their parents or legal guardians.

The website states all students under the age of 24 are automatically assumed to be dependent, or have 51 percent of their financial support coming from their parent/legal guardian. Therefore, the student attains the same residential status as their financial provider.

The case docket states that the classification as a non-resident student can lead to the tripling of costs for public education.

“As a result, many talented American students must either forego higher education or incur extraordinary costs, in both money and time, in order to obtain the same education made available to other Florida residents at a small fraction of the cost,” the docket stated.

Currently, undergraduate Florida resident students pay $191.06 per credit hour at the USF Tampa campus, while non-resident students pay $497.32 per credit hour for the same classes.

Braulio Colon, interim director for Enlace Florida, a USF based organization that researches and advocates for first-generation students, said the cost discrepancy places an unfair burden on these students.

“It makes access to higher education extremely difficult,” he said. “The cost develops a significant barrier. It’s a huge problem. Florida’s not denying these students access to higher education. They’re just making it extremely difficult, and it’s not fair to these students who are U.S. citizens.”

Approximately 4.5 million U.S.-born citizens of undocumented parents live in the U.S., according to the docket, and 6.8 percent of students in elementary and secondary schools nationally fall under this classification. “(The lawsuit is about) providing rights to U.S. citizens, and that, to me, is a no-brainer,” Colon said. “These students are born in Florida, went through the public school system, have their driver’s license, are registered to vote, but are unable to qualify for in-state tuition at a public university in Florida because their parents can’t provide documentation they need to prove residency. There should be no question about it.”

The lawsuit touches on themes of the Dream Act, an act passed by 12 other states that has garnered much debate in Florida. It allows undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition regardless of their residency status.

Pamela Gomez-Ferrera, a senior majoring in sociology, said she hopes the lawsuit will expand to allow more students to pay in-state tuition. Gomez-Ferrera’s family members are legally U.S. citizens, though she said they had lots of difficulties attaining their documentation. Gomez-Ferrera said she can empathize with the plight of undocumented students.

“(In-state tuition) would help so much,” she said. “If you see the socioeconomic status of undocumented youth, it’s unfair to expect them to support themselves.”

Gomez-Ferrera said it is often an issue of immigration bureaucracy that prevents individuals from attaining legal residency.

“That’s not the American dream I dreamt of,” she said.