By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Serena A. Siew
The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld a state law that makes any student eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of the student’s immigration status. Even those present in the country unlawfully would qualify for the lower tuition rates, as long as they attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated. The ruling resulted from plaintiffs, United States citizens but not residents of California, who challenged the higher, out-of-state tuition they were charged compared to those paid by illegal immigrant students in California. These students contended the state law providing in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants violated a federal law prohibiting them from receiving “any postsecondary education benefit” available to California’s legal permanent residents. Monday’s ruling reversed the lower court decision finding the state law unconstitutional.
Advocates for undocuments students, on the other hand, defended the ruling as a step in the right direction after the failure of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The DREAM Act was proposed legislation that would have allowed certain students to get their green card after completing college or serving in the military, so long as they came before the age of 16 and lived in the United States for at least 5 years. Despite the constant debate in favor of the law and hope that the amendment would pass, the DREAM Act never became a reality. Proponents of this pathway to legal permanent residency were defeated again.
Anti-illegal immigration advocates contended that the Dream Act and the California law argued in this case encouraged illegal immigration by giving students without status some benefit over those who were legal. The California Supreme Court, however, maintained that the California law merely made benefits available based on criteria applicable to any student, not just to those who could not prove legal residency in the United States. As stated by Justice Chin, “It cannot be the case that states may never give a benefit to unlawful aliens without giving the same benefit to all American citizens.”
Unlike the DREAM Act, this ruling does not provide a path to legalization, but rather an alternate route to pursue the American Dream. Namely, it makes students whose parents have always encouraged them to study and work hard to become eligible for lower in-state tuition, so long as they attend high school for three years and graduated. The ruling does not guarantee lower tuition, but allows any student meeting these criteria to attend state colleges and universities in California. Illegal immigrant students still do not qualify for government financial aid, most scholarships, or private loan programs. They also do not take away other benefits derived from legal status.
Indeed, it is only through “hard work and perseverance” that qualifying students have “earned the opportunity” to attend a UC, University of California President Mark G. Yudof told the Associated Press. “Their accomplishments should not be disregarded or their futures jeopardized.”
Monday’s ruling, lauded by University of California and California State University officials, picks up where the DREAM Act left off, offering students the opportunity to pursue their education and strive toward academic achievement, without offering an “easy pathway” to legal status. By giving meritorious candidates a fair chance to continue their studies and ultimately contribute to society, Monday’s ruling keeps the American Dream alive. At a time when many hopes have died, it allows a number of students to keep dreaming.