Judge: U.S.-Born Children of Undocumented Parents Can Pay In-State Tuition

Florida students attending public colleges and universities should not be charged higher out-of-state tuition simply because their parents, who are also Florida residents, cannot prove they are in the country legally, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore concluded that the state's policy of categorizing American citizens as out-of-state residents because of their parents' immigration status violates the equal protection of the laws guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Furthermore, Moore wrote that barring students from obtaining in-state tuition because of their parents' immigration status "does not advance any legitimate state interest, much less the state's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents."

The case illustrates some of the educational challenges that U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrant parents will face as state and local jurisdictions introduce laws that seek to address illegal immigration.

Illegal immigrant parents continue to put down roots and are sending their children to public and private colleges and universities, sometimes looking for the assistance of state-funded Pell Grants, federal student loans, and in-state tuition rates. While undocumented students don't qualify for federal financial aid and other state assistance, those born in the U.S. typically do.

A state Court of Appeals in New Jersey ruled last month, according to an Associated Press story, that a U.S.-born student was wrongly denied financial aid because the student's parents are in the country illegally. In California and Colorado, students won similar battles, according to the AP article.

But a 2011 study examining social development of youth found that the estimated 4.4 million U.S.-born children of illegal immigrant parents face multiple barriers before they reach the 12th grade. "The effects of unauthorized status on development across the lifespan are uniformly negative, with millions of U.S. children and youth at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility, and ambiguous belonging," according to the 2011 Harvard University study.

Last week's Florida ruling was in response to a Southern Poverty Law Center class-action lawsuit on behalf of several Florida students, including Wendy Ruiz, a student at Miami-Dade College who was classified as an out-of-state student because she could not provide the legal status of her parents.

Ruiz, who was born in Miami and graduated from a local high school, was required to pay tuition that was nearly three times higher, according to the court document.

Florida law requires that dependent students provide proof that their parents have lived in the state in the past year. In the past two years, however, the state's board of education and board of governors have started to require that students also provide their parents' federal immigration status, according to the SPLC website.

In handing down a decision that may reduce barriers to education for some in Florida, Moore acknowledged that the needs of the labor force have changed dramatically and that post-secondary learning has increased in importance.

"Higher education is a prerequisite to pursue careers in science, medicine, engineering, and law," Moore wrote. "Those with postsecondary education attain higher earnings and suffer lower unemployment rates."