Federal Judge Tosses Out-of-State Tuition for U.S.-Born Children of Undocumented Immigrants

Sep 5, 2012

A federal judge in Miami has ruled that children of undocumented immigrants living in Florida should receive the lower in-state tuition rate for public colleges and universities. The issue has been a long-running dispute in Florida. Despite the judge’s ruling, children of undocumented immigrants, especially those brought to the country when they were younger, still face many challenges.

Earlier this year the Florida legislature shot down attempts to allow legal Florida citizens whose parents are undocumented immigrants, to have in-state tuition. The move came despite pleas from students like 18-year-old Renato Lherisson who was born in Florida, raised in Haiti, but returned following the 2010 Earthquake that devastated the country:

“From an earthquake, to you wanting to be more and working hard and getting A’s in school, you expect to go to college and pay normal tuition. And this issue coming up, it just breaks everything you want to do," he said at the time.

Out of state students pay about $17,000 a year to attend Florida’s public colleges and universities that puts higher education out of reach for many families.  At the time the debate was up in the legislature, lawmakers like Republican Senator Steve Oelrich who voted against several similar bills, said that the issue was one of fairness:

“It’s about removing all kind of qualifications for illegal aliens, but we’re going to keep the ones for the people in Michigan and that sort of thing.”  

But Tuesday a federal judge in Miami ruled that children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S. and living in Florida- like Renato Lherisson-should receive the lower in-state tuition rate.

“I was very excited. I thought it was a fabulous and just ruling," said Karen Woodall, Executive Director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy.

“These are children who were born in the United State. They are U.S. Citizens, but because their parents are undocumented parents, they were charged out-of-state tuition which never made much sense to me.”

In Florida a child’s tuition status and whether they qualify for the lower, state-subsidized rate, is determined by the residency of their parents.

The judge’s ruling is only for the U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants, it wouldn’t apply to another group of students: those who were brought to the country as children and who remain undocumented. It’s a situation that students like Evelyn Rivera, who was brought to the U.S. when she was three years old from Colombia, know well.

“This past semester I had to stop my education because I couldn’t afford the prices anymore and it’s not something my parents can afford to pay for me,”  she said.

Rivera was able to get into a school despite her immigration status.  But other students in a similar position may not be as lucky. In Florida, colleges and universities don’t have to accept undocumented students. Recently, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that allows immigrants brought to the country as children to stay in the U.S on temporary basis and receive work permits. But it doesn’t provide them a pathway toward citizenship. Still, for many students, it’s an option.

The federal government announced last month that registration for the program is now open, and law firms like Rambana and Ricci in Tallahassee, are working to sign people up. Here is Elizabeth Ricci:

“There are several requirements. Person had to have entered before they were 16, they need to have been here for the last five years. They need to either have graduated or be attending high school or have a GED. They cannot have serious criminal histories or several misdemeanors, and they have to be under the age of 30 before the order was announced on June 15th of this year," said Elizabeth Ricci.

Ricci says the Obama administration’s immigration plan, while far from a solution, would at least allow these students to work and possibly, stay in school.

“But it doesn’t give a permanent status. It’s not a green card, or permanent residency or citizenship. For people interested in attending a school, you’d have to find out what those school’s rules are for admission.”  

Under the program, undocumented immigrants would have to apply for the work permits. If approved they would be good for two years and renewable for another two. Whether they would extend beyond that is unclear. Ricci says since the policy went into effect in August, her firm has received several hundred calls from people who are looking to get some immigration relief.