Tuition deal for immigrants upheld


The U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing California to continue granting reduced, in-state tuition to college students who are illegal immigrants is likely to bolster similar proposals across the nation, as well as a California measure to provide financial aid for the undocumented.

The high court’s action Monday upholds a California Supreme Court ruling last year that said the state’s policy is legal because it grants in-state tuition on the basis of students’ graduation from California high schools, not on their citizenship. A conservative immigration-law group appealed the decision, arguing that the discount -- worth as much as $23,000 annually at University of California schools -- was preferential treatment that violated federal law.

Monday’s ruling was a victory for the estimated 41,000 students -- less than 1% of total enrollment -- at UC, Cal State and community college campuses who qualify for the in-state discount under the 10-year-old state law. Some of those are illegal immigrants and others are U.S. citizens who attended California high schools but whose families then moved. UC estimates that 600 of them are undocumented; Cal State and community colleges say they don’t have that information.


Twelve other states offer similar policies, and several more are considering it. Advocates in those states will be encouraged by the court’s action, despite the political controversies, said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.

“I think it’s going to send out a very strong message that the challenge was baseless and without merit, and make it harder for other groups to put forth challenges,” he said. “And it certainly strengthens the arguments for the policy and legislation.”

But attorneys who challenged the California law, AB 540, said the case is not necessarily over. “Justice will have to wait for another day,” said Michael Hethmon, general counsel with the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of 42 students who are U.S. citizens.

Hethmon said that with several similar challenges underway in other states, the high court may eventually have to reconsider the issue. In Alabama, legislators passed a law last week not only denying in-state tuition to illegal immigrants but also barring their enrollment in colleges and universities; the state’s Republican Gov. Robert Bentley has expressed support for the bill. In Massachusetts, a voter referendum campaign is underway to repeal its in-state tuition law.

Michael Brady, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the California case, said taxpayers need to be better informed about the costly effects of both the tuition discount policy and the proposal to give undocumented college students public financial aid. “The state is in desperate financial shape and can’t assume any more debts or obligations,” he said.

The annual in-state discount is about $23,000 at UC, $11,000 at Cal State and $4,400 at community colleges.


Undocumented students and their advocates said they would use the court’s action to push for passage of the California Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to receive campus-based aid and the state’s Cal Grants to help pay their bills at UC, Cal State and community colleges. It could cost about $32.2 million annually, according to an analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The measure, proposed by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), recently passed the state Assembly and is being considered in the Senate. The Legislature had approved a similar measure, but then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it last year. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, “supports the principles of the Dream Act and would closely consider any legislation that reaches his desk,” spokesman Evan Westrup said Monday.

Ernesto Zumaya, a UCLA English major whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was an infant, said he was “extremely happy” about the Supreme Court action. But even with the in-state discount, he said, he had to take time off from school last year because he cannot obtain UC aid or Cal Grants. Zumaya, who graduated from Montebello High School, said he found some private scholarships to help him pay UCLA tuition and fees of about $11,300 this year.

Zumaya, 24, is active in a group advocating for the state Dream Act. The financial aid, he said, “would give us more opportunities to continue our education, not only for those who are in the university now, but also high school and middle school students who think they can’t attend because they see no resources for them.”

William G. Tierney, director of USC’s Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, thinks the court action will boost arguments to expand public scholarships because those, too, would be based on graduating from a California high school, not on citizenship. Tuition grants to the undocumented would expand the state’s tax revenues in the long run, he said.

“It’s good economic policy for the state to have more educated workers. We do not have enough now for high-wage, high-skilled jobs,” he said.


The justices issued a one-line order dismissing the appeal in the case of Martinez vs. Board of Regents of the University of California.

Leaders of UC, Cal State and community colleges all said they were pleased. If the court had heard the case and struck down the law, many students might have had to leave school, they said. “For many students, AB 540 is the only reason they are able to afford the university,” said Margaret Woo, a lawyer for UC.

In the appeal, challengers cited a provision in a 1986 federal law that barred states from giving “any postsecondary benefit” to an “alien who is not lawfully present in the United States ... on the basis of residence within a state.”

Kris W. Kobach, a lawyer for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said state lawmakers who provide the in-state tuition benefit to illegal immigrants are playing “semantic games to defeat the objectives of Congress.”

A proposal to create a path to citizenship for undocumented students failed in the U.S. Senate in December. That bill, known as the federal Dream Act, would have granted legal status to potentially hundreds of thousands of immigrants under 30 who attend college or serve in the military. Opponents called it amnesty for lawbreakers.


Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.