The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously this week that illegal immigrant students can continue to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
The controversial ruling makes higher education in California more affordable for students who don't have legal status. Critics of the ruling say they are precisely the students who should not be in the United States in the first place.
The court ruling affects students like 20-year-old John, who asked that his surname not be used because he is worried about revealing his immigration status.
"My mom is Filipino, and my dad is El Salvadoran. And they met in Canada, and that's where they gave birth to me," John says.
John's family came to the U.S., where he attended California schools. By the time he graduated from high school two years ago, his undocumented status left him in a quandary. His mother was ill, and he was broke.
"I didn't think I could go to college, so it was really depressing. I didn't know what I could do here. I was thinking of moving back to Canada, but at the same time, we have no money and no family in Canada, so my options were so limited," he says.
The Benefit Of In-State Tuition
But through friends and mentors, John learned he could afford a local junior college by paying an in-state tuition rate -- a discount available under California law to anyone who attends high school in the state for at least three years and graduates.
That law took effect eight years ago, says Ethan Schulman, an attorney who successfully defended it before the California Supreme Court.
"The law on its face makes no distinction on the basis of residence, and it makes no distinction on the basis of immigration status. It simply refers to students who have attended high school for three or more years in [California] and graduated," Schulman says.
The law was challenged on behalf of 42 out-of-state students who sued the University of California because they are charged a higher rate of tuition.
In-state tuition at University of California campuses is currently $10,302, while out-of-state students are charged $33,181.
On To The U.S. Supreme Court?
Attorney Michael J. Brady, who represented the plaintiffs in the case against the University of California, says the California law is in conflict with a federal law that says illegal immigrants may not receive benefits based on residency, or benefits unavailable to all citizens.
"The federal law clearly indicated the intention of Congress to stop states from granting discounted or in-state tuition to unlawful aliens," Brady says.
But Schulman says that since illegal immigrant students are ineligible for any kind of financial aid, in-state tuition rates are a small break.
"Most of these students ... come from very reduced economic circumstances. Their parents are cleaning our offices and working in our fields," Schulman says. "To expect them to be able pay out of their own pockets without any benefit of financial aid that's available to anyone else is unrealistic in the extreme."
The California Supreme Court ruling was unanimous. That could discourage legal challenges in other states where illegal immigrant students to pay in-state tuition. But Brady and other critics say they have every intention of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.