A Miami federal judge has found that Florida is violating the constitutional rights of American-born children of illegal immigrants by requiring them to pay higher tuition rates than other students at state colleges and universities.
The case, spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, centers on students who live in Florida and are U.S. citizens, despite their parents' illegal status. Those students have been denied discounted, in-state tuition rates enjoyed by other students who graduate from Florida high schools and enter the higher-education system.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, in a ruling dated Friday, said the state regulations violate equal-protection rights and create "an additional obstacle for plaintiffs (students named in the case) to attain post-secondary education from one of the state's public institutions that is not faced by other residents."
"(Classifying) U.S. citizen students who reside in Florida according to their parents' undocumented federal immigration status does not advance any legitimate state interest, much less the state's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents,'' Moore wrote.
Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said attorneys were reviewing Moore's ruling Tuesday. But in a court document filed last month, the state emphasized that the students are dependents of undocumented parents.
"The tuition rate for all students depends upon establishing legal residency, and the legal residency of all dependent students is based on their parents' legal residency,'' the document said. "Plaintiffs concede that they fully qualified as dependent children when making college applications relevant to this action."
Moore's decision, however, was praised by two Democratic House members who unsuccessfully proposed a bill this year that would have made such students eligible for in-state tuition.
"I hope today's ruling quickly ends Florida's ridiculous policy of requiring U.S. citizens to pay expensive out-of-state tuition rates simply because of their parents' legal status,'' said Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, who was joined in the proposal by Rep. Hazelle "Hazel" Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes.
Four of the named plaintiffs in the case were born in Miami and a fifth was born in California. They each graduated from Florida public high schools in 2010 or 2011 and made plans to attend Florida International University, Miami-Dade College or Palm Beach State College, according to Moore's ruling.
Each of the students was denied lower in-state tuition rates, and three either could not attend college or were forced to withdraw, the ruling says.
State law and regulations approved by the state Board of Education and the university system's Board of Governors detail residency requirements for in-state tuition eligibility.
In a 19-page order, Moore wrote that public higher education and reduced in-state tuition rates are "properly viewed as attaching to the student and not to the household."
"It is the plaintiffs who, upon graduating from a post-secondary educational institution, receive their names on diplomas, and it is Plaintiffs --not Plaintiffs' parents, cousins, or siblings --who are entitled to the benefits conferred by such a degree,'' he wrote.