Law & Courts

Undocumented Students Get a Break in California

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 17, 2010 2 min read
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The U.S. Congress has not yet given undocumented students across the country a break by passing the “DREAM Act,” but the California Supreme Court has boosted opportunities for high school graduates without papers in that state by upholding a law enabling them to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

I’ve been on the road for a couple of days, and I just took the time this morning to read the California Supreme Court’s decision on the in-state tuition case, Robert Martinez v the Regents of the University of California, which was released Monday. The ruling reversed the judgment of a California appeals court, which struck down California’s law that gives undocumented students who attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated from that school the chance to pay in-state-tuition rates.

The court ruled that the state law doesn’t violate a federal law that says undocumented immigrants can’t receive a postsecondary education benefit on the basis of residence within a state unless U.S. citizens are also eligible for such a benefit, as opponents of the in-state-tuition law had contended. The court pointed out that the California law isn’t based on residence in California, but rather other criteria, and thus doesn’t violate the federal law.

The decision offers a good summary of the arguments for and against California’s law offering in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. The court says it received arguments that the law “affords deserving students educational opportunities that would not otherwise be available and, conversely, arguments that it flouts the will of Congress, wastes taxpayers’ money, and encourages illegal immigration.”

Interestingly, the court states that it isn’t ruling on the merits of the policy to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students but rather only on the legal question that arises from the policy. “Whether Congress’s prohibition or the legislature’s exemption is good policy is not for us to say,” says the decision.

In an e-mail statement, Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, used the opportunity of the ruling to call on the Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria and complete two years of college or military service. “Congress should enact the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform to resolve these issues once and for all,” Olivas said.

In September, the U.S. Senate fell four votes short of the 60 it needed to attach the act to a defense authorization bill. Critics of the proposed legislation say that it would offer amnesty to people who have broken U.S. laws.

President Obama wants to see passage of the DREAM Act during the lame-duck session in Congress, according to an article published yesterday by The Hill. The president met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to discuss options on immigration reform, according to The Hill.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.