WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday to uphold California's policy of granting 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 illegal immigrants, analysts said.
The appeal from an immigration-law group that includes Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose state has a similar tuition law, contended that giving students illegally in the country the in-state discounts was preferential treatment that violated federal law.
The court's action maintained a California Supreme Court ruling last year that said the state's policy was legal since it is based on the student graduating from a California high school, not on residency or citizenship.
Monday's ruling was a victory for the estimated 41,000 students — less than 1 percent of total enrollment — at University of California, California State University and community college campuses who qualify for the in-state discount under the 10-year-old state law.
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Some of those are illegal immigrants and others are U.S. citizens who attended California high schools but whose families then moved or were high school students who left the state to study.
Twelve other states — Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — offer similar policies. Several others a reconsidering it, and advocates there 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 Association 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 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 several similar challenges are under way in other states, possibly forcing the high court eventually to reconsider.
In Alabama, state legislators passed a law last week not only denying in-state tuition to illegal immigrants but also barring their enrollment in colleges and universities. Alabama's Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who had previously expressed support for the proposal, currently is considering the bill. In Massachusetts, a voter referendum campaign is under way to repeal a recently passed 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 impact 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.
Illegal-immigrant students and their advocates said they will use the court's action to push for passage of the California Dream Act, state legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to receive campus-based aid and the state's Cal Grants. It could cost about $32.2 million annually, according to an analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
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.
In the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, challengers cited a little-known 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."
Kobach said in the appeal state lawmakers who provide the in-state tuition benefit to illegal immigrants are playing "semantic games to defeat the objectives of Congress."