A sign with the words, ” We have dreams too!”, lays on a chair after a press conference to announce The American Dream Act March 12, 2007 at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida ruling for DREAMers and children of undocumented to receive in-state tuition

A Miami federal judge has ruled it unconstitutional for Florida colleges and universities to charge higher tuition for the dependent children of undocumented immigrants. The ruling allows DREAMers to pay in-state tuition rates, which may cost Florida as much as $200 million annually.

The lawsuit, which is currently under review by Florida officials, was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil-rights organization that estimates this ruling will affect 8,000 to 10,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 who are U.S. citizens and dependents of undocumented immigrants.

“Imagine being born here and doing everything right, but just because your parents don’t have papers you’re forced to pay twice as much tuition as another Florida resident,” says Mayra Hidalgo, a DREAMer and sophmore at Polk State College in Florida. Paying twice as much for tuition because of a parent’s undocumented status has discouraged some students and doesn’t allow for equal opportunity, in Hidalgo’s opinion. “Many DREAMers feel like this state is their home. It was very unfair to have this policy that keeps us citizens from bettering ourselves and continuing our education,” she adds.

Despite being U.S. citizens, Florida high school graduates and residents of the state, students who are dependents of undocumented immigrants were denied the less-expensive in-state tuition rate. Florida’s public colleges and universities charge tuition based on the legal residency status of a student or the legal residency status of dependent students’ parents.

“The state regulations deny a benefit and create unique obstacles to attain public post-secondary public education for U.S. citizen children who would otherwise qualify for in-state tuition but for their parents’ undocumented immigration status,” U.S. District Judge Michael Moore wrote in a 19-page opinion. In his ruling, Moore determined a student’s family is irrelevant in determining their tuition costs.

“There are not two tiers of citizenship in this country. Our clients are U.S. citizens and they’ve been treated as non-citizens,” says Jerri Katzerman, Southern Poverty’s deputy legal director who noted that this ruling could potentially remove a barrier for students who were discouraged from attending college. “Our hope is that the state will accept the judgment of the court,” says Katzerman, adding, “[The policy] is clearly unconstitutional.”

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The five plaintiffs in the case graduated from a Florida high school in 2010 or 2011 and planned to attend a Florida public college or university. They were asked to pay out-of-state tuition, which is nearly three times the cost of in-state tuition in Florida.

If the ruling stands, some state leaders predict it could prompt Florida to make other changes to college programs including Bright Futures scholarships, which are currently only open to legal Florida residents or dependents with parents who are legal residents. According to documents filed by education officials, the state could lose as much as $200 million a year if forced to reset tuition rates and provide lower tuition to all U.S. citizens whose parents are undocumented residents.

The state’s Department of Education Press Secretary, Cheryl Etters, said the Department would not comment on the possibility of an appeal or litigation prior to a final judgment on the case. The Department of Education oversees Florida’s 28 community colleges.

The Board of Governors’ Director of Communication, Kim Wilmath, confirmed that while the ruling is under legal review, they will also wait to comment. The Board of Governors oversees the 12 state universities.

Florida is the only state with specific regulations denying in-state tuition to U.S. born students of undocumented immigrants.

In Maryland, there is a similar ballot question of whether or not to allow in-state tuition rates for some undocumented immigrants. A recent study by the University of Maryland’s Institute for Policy Analysis and Research found that the state’s DREAMers would eventually generate as much as $66 million a year for the state and businesses if provided better access to education.

And a U.S.-born student in New Jersey won an appeal in August after being denied financial assistance for tuition at a state college because her parents aren’t citizens.

For Hidalgo, who’s currently getting her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) paperwork together so she can transfer to a university and continue her education, the original out-of-state tuition policy was a roadblock to success. “We come from working class families in Florida and we grow up with the hope of going to college. That policy was a huge barrier,” she says, adding, “It doesn’t speak to what this country is about.”

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