Higher Florida College Tuition for Children of Undocumented Immigrants is Unconstitutional, Court Says

Children of Undocumented.JPGState education officials are debating how to respond to a federal ruling that declared it unconstitutional for Florida colleges and universities to charge higher tuition to the dependent children of undocumented immigrants. The state could lose as much as $200 million a year if it has to offer lower tuition rates to all U.S. citizens whose parents are not legal residents, according to court documents filed by education officials.

Members of the state Board of Education, which oversees Florida’s 28 community colleges, will meet Monday to discuss the lawsuit filed late last year by five South Florida students. Florida’s public colleges and universities charge tuition based on a student’s legal residency, or in the case of dependent children, the parent’s residency. The state covers much of the cost of a public-college education for Florida residents and their dependents.

A federal judge ruled that is a violation of the Constitution’s equal-protection clause to charge higher tuition to American-born students who live in Florida but are the dependents of parents in the country illegally. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights organization that filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of the South Florida students, estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 Floridians aged 18 to 24 are U.S. citizens and dependents of undocumented immigrants.

If the ruling stands, it could have widespread financial and policy implications. Some state leaders predict it could prompt Florida to make other changes to college programs, including the popular Bright Futures scholarships, currently open only to legal Florida residents and their dependents.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, has not yet scheduled a public discussion. Board of Governors spokeswoman Kim Wilmath said the group is waiting for U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore to issue a final judgment in the case, which should offer more details about his Aug. 31 ruling. Once the final judgment is released, colleges and universities will have 30 days to respond.

States such as Texas and California already allow children of undocumented immigrant parents to pay a lower amount.

Some in Florida believe that it is unrealistic and counterproductive to expect students to work hard and make good grades high school and then block them from receiving lower tuition rates and scholarships because of their parents’ immigration status. Some can only afford to take a few classes at a time because out-of-state tuition is expensive: $686 per credit hour, on average, at state universities compared to $202 per credit hour for in-state tuition.

The counterargument from state education officials is that Florida’s two-tiered tuition system does not unjustly penalize U.S. citizens who live in Florida. Citizens whose parents are undocumented immigrants can qualify for in-state tuition if they can prove that they have lived in Florida for at least 12 months and they apply on their own behalf. However, students who apply to college as dependents of parents who cannot show legal residency should be charged out-of-state tuition.

Florida also could be ordered to offer some sort of restitution to students who were required to pay the higher tuition.