Counselors at some community colleges are advising students who are illegal immigrants that they will be charged significantly higher tuition fees next semester and are encouraging them to sign up for classes now to beat a Jan. 1 deadline.
Community colleges will begin charging illegal immigrants out-of-state tuition fees of $103 per unit--as compared to the in-state rate of $6 per unit--because of a state court decision that ruled that students who are not legal U.S. residents cannot qualify for the lower state tuition.
Although the court case directly affected only the nine-campus UC system, the governors for the state's community college system decided in July to abide by the decision.
The decision--essentially to begin asking students about their citizenship status for the first time in recent years--is a sweeping change in policy that has created confusion about how the colleges will enforce the rule. It has also provoked anger among college teachers, administrators and some lawmakers, who fear that the higher tuition rates will prevent many illegal immigrants, some of whom have lived most of their lives in this country, from obtaining higher education.
"I think it's counterproductive, based on what we're trying to achieve at the community colleges," said Bill Hewitt, director of the Extended Opportunities Programs and Services office at Irvine Valley College, which helps economically and educationally disadvantaged students.
"Not only are they going to have to pay money that they don't have," he said, "but they aren't eligible for federal grants, loans and scholarships. So it's kind of like closing the door to a significant population that may have no other alternative than to seek public assistance."
UC campuses have already begun charging non-resident tuition fees to any new student who does not have legal residency under U.S. immigration rules. This fall at UC Irvine, for example, such students must pay $2,566 per quarter in tuition; the fee for legal California residents is $841. UC does not keep figures on how many such students there are, but in the past, university officials have estimated that the higher fees would affect only 100 to 120 students out of about 160,000 enrolled at UC campuses, said Susie A. Castillo-Robson, UC's acting director of student affairs.
The new practice stems from a state Supreme Court ruling in a 1986 lawsuit filed by former UC employee David P. Bradford, who refused to enroll undocumented students as California residents. Bradford challenged the university policy of considering illegal immigrants as residents for tuition purposes if they had been living in the state for more than a year and planned to remain in California.
In effect, Bradford was challenging a new policy adopted by order of a Alameda County Superior Court judge, who ruled in 1985 that both the UC and California State University systems' refusal to allow undocumented students to establish residency for tuition purposes violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution, according to David M. Birnbaum, counsel for the UC Board of Regents.
In the Bradford case, however, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the state education code bars undocumented students from establishing residency for tuition purposes.
UC attorneys appealed the Alameda County case, citing conflicting orders, but the state Supreme Court upheld the decision.
Attorneys for the Cal State system have returned to the Alameda County court, asking whether they are bound by the ruling in that case. A hearing on that is scheduled Tuesday.
Community colleges were not legally bound by either ruling. But fearing possible legal challenges, the community college governors decided to abandon their practice of allowing undocumented students to be considered state residents.
Community college officials insist that they are not making a "concerted" effort to recruit illegal immigrants to their campuses. But many counselors, especially those who work with illegal immigrants, have at least made an effort to pass the fee-rise information along, college administrators said.
"We're trying to get as many people enrolled now as we can," said Hewitt of Irvine Valley.
There are still a few, though not many, short-semester classes open for late registration. And at this point, some counselors are urging the students to sign up for anything, even if the class does not suit their immediate needs.
"I've told them to sign up for PE, anything, just to be enrolled," said Alex Guillen, EOPS counselor at Orange Coast College.
College officials could not tell, however, whether the effort by a few counselors has actually increased enrollment figures for the short-semester courses. The figures are generally up for the fall semester because of a combination of factors, including population growth, the recession that has sent many laid-off workers back to school and cuts in classes and increased tuition at universities.
The eight- or nine-week classes, which allow students to earn as much credit as in a 15-week course, begin this week, but students may continue to enroll through this week and next. There are also shorter courses available at some colleges, such as Orange Coast and Rancho Santiago.
Administrators, who are still waiting for specific instructions on how to check for legal status, expect the process to be daunting.
"You work with the human beings that are affected," said Betty Klees, Orange Coast's director of admissions and records. "It's different. You can read all these rules, but then you have to interpret them for these people and it, it just gets sticky."
Many officials predict that the changes will discourage people from taking classes that could help them acquire or increase job skills.
"We believe an educated populace is the best bet for all Californians," said Marco Firebaugh, anaide to Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), whose bill to amend state residency requirements affecting illegal immigrants was vetoed by the governor in June.
"It makes economic sense for all of us that our population be educated and be able to participate in a highly technological society," he said.
Before the court decision, the colleges had simply required proof that a student was living in the state for one year.
"Since we've never asked this of students, we don't know how many we actually have," said Ann Reed, spokeswoman for the California Community Colleges system. She estimated that 14,000 of the system's 1.5 million students might be affected.
"I'm also told that a good proportion of those would be students who have completed grade school and high school in this country, but once they reach us, it's a different story," she said.
Lilia Powell, executive director of the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said colleges will have to be careful when deciding who will qualify for in-state status and who will not.
"It would definitely be a problem if they pick and choose who they will ask that question, if they make it part of their application form," she said. "Are they going to take the student's word or are they going to require proof?"
"It's too bad one has to take any sides on this, when we're all in favor of the education and betterment of our community. It's just too close-minded if people think that barring education is going to force people to leave this country."