Five students who were born in the United States, raised in Florida and graduated from its high schools are suing state education officials after being charged out-of-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities because their parents are undocumented.
"Even if you can prove you are a U.S. citizen, they are then asking you if your parents are U.S. citizens," said Attorney Tania Galloni of the Miami office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who is representing the students in a class action suit. "There is nothing in the statute that says they have to do this. This is an interpretation of the law being made by state officials."
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Miami, charges that state policies discriminate against certain U.S. citizen students because of the immigration status of their parents and that is unconstitutional. Charging such students out-of-state tuition rates greatly increases the cost of attending state colleges and universities.
"Many talented American students must either forgo higher education or incur extraordinary costs, in both money and time, in order to obtain the same education made available to other Florida residents at a small fraction of the cost," the suit says.
One of the students named in the suit is Kassandra Romero, 18, who was born in California, but has lived in Florida for 13 years, most recently with her family in Delray Beach. According to the lawsuit, Romero has "a Florida high school diploma, a Florida driver's license, and other proof of her continuous residence in Florida."
"Although Kassandra registered for classes at Palm Beach State College, in June 2011, school officials informed her that she would have to show proof of her parents' legal immigration status in order to qualify for in-state tuition rates," the complaint states. "Unable to meet that requirement and unable to afford non-resident tuition rates, Kassandra withdrew from college. She currently works at a restaurant."
Of the five students named in the class action suit, only Romero was born outside Florida.
The lawsuit states that at Palm Beach State College, students who pay in-state rates in the associate degree programs are charged $96 per credit hour, while those classified as nonresidents are charged $349.
For 24 credits over the academic year, nonresidents are charged $6,072 more in tuition toward an associate's degree. Resident students in the bachelor's degree program are charged $113.64 per credit hour, while nonresidents are charged $520.90, the complaint says.
For 24 credits over the academic year, non-residents are charged $9,774.24 more in tuition toward a bachelor's degree than residents.
Such differences in tuition also exist at other state schools.
"In short, United States citizen students who reside in Florida but whose parents are undocumented immigrants are charged three to four times as much as other Florida residents for the same education at Florida's public colleges and universities," the complaint states.
Galloni says that according to Florida statutes governing tuition rates, legal residence is defined by having a legitimate Florida domicile for at least 12 months before the student enters the school.
"There is nothing in the statute that refers to immigration status," Galloni said.
The lawsuit names as defendants Gerard Robinson, Florida commissioner of education, and Frank Brogan, chancellor of the state university system. It claims that in charging the out-of state fees to U.S. born students who can prove their legal residence in Florida, state education officials are violating the 14th Amendment by denying those students equal protection of the laws.
"These American students went to the same Florida high schools, held down the same part-time jobs and participated in the same after-school activities as their counterparts who are granted in-state tuition," Galloni said. "We are simply asking that these students be granted the same rights as all other Florida citizens."