Monday, October 24, 2011

Seriously, Florida?

Again, although this doesn't directly speak to the issue of human trafficking, I need to share this. You see, immigration law dictates that if you are born in the United States, you are a citizen, with all of the privileges and burdens associated with that status. Why would Florida believe it's okay to charge the U.S. citizen children of immigrants higher tuition rates? Seriously? Blood is boiling.

U.S.-citizen children of immigrants protest higher tuition rates

U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants must pay out-of-state tuition in Florida. A lawsuit has been filed to overturn the policy.

   Miami Dade College student Wendy Ruiz appears last week at the annoucement of a lawsuit challenging Florida's tuition rules for citizen children of undocumented families.
Miami Dade College student Wendy Ruiz appears last week at the annoucement of a lawsuit challenging Florida's tuition rules for citizen children of undocumented families.
Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center


The far-reaching immigration debate in Florida and the nation has been going on for years, but until last week, the plight of students like Wendy Ruiz — an aspiring podiatrist — had been largely invisible.

Born and raised in Miami, Ruiz is a U.S. citizen. But in the eyes of Florida’s higher education system, she’s a dependent student whose parents are undocumented immigrants — and not considered legal Florida residents .

As such, Ruiz is charged higher-priced out-of-state tuition, even though she has a Florida birth certificate, Florida driver’s license and is a registered Florida voter. One semester of in-state tuition at Miami Dade College costs about $1,200, while out-of-state students pay roughly $4,500.

Many students are simply unable to absorb the increased cost. Ruiz has been attending Miami Dade College and, so far, has a 3.7 GPA but must work multiple part-time jobs just to pay for one class. Other similarly-affected students have completely given up on college.

“As an American, and a lifelong Florida resident, I deserve the same opportunities,” Ruiz said. “I know that I will be successful because I have never wanted something so bad in my life like I want this.”

Last week, Ruiz and several other South Florida students emerged as the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging Florida’s in-state residency guidelines. The same week, a Jacksonville state lawmaker filed a bill that would grant in-state tuition to students like Ruiz.

The lawsuit and the proposed legislation have focused attention on a little-known issue in Florida, where immigration activists have long concentrated on passage of a federal Dream Act.

The proposed Dream Act has languished in Congress for years. It would legalize certain undocumented immigrants who have been accepted into college or the military. These young people were typically brought to the United States illegally as children. Proponents argue they should not be penalized for the illegal actions of their parents.

The Dream Act remains a hot-button political issue. Advocates for a stricter, hard-line immigration policy say passage would reward those who entered the country illegally.

At a recent Republican presidential primary debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry got hammered for his support of a state law that allowed undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition.

Unlike those who would benefit from the Dream Act, the issue for students like Ruiz is radically different because they are, in fact, U.S. citizens.


Many assumed these students were automatically eligible for in-state tuition, including Rolando Montoya, Miami Dade College’s provost and a 25-year college employee.

Within the last two years Montoya discovered the state policy, thanks to an irate mother who demanded to speak with him.

“I said, ‘It must be a mistake,’ ” Montoya recalled. “I was convinced that an error had been made.”

To his dismay, Montoya realized it was no admissions department mix-up.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls Florida’s policy a direct violation of the U.S. Constitution’s equal-protection clause.

Michael A. Olivas, who teaches immigration and higher education law at the University of Houston, said he was “astounded” by Florida’s actions. Colorado at one time had a similar policy, but abandoned it on the advice of its attorney general, and Olivas said he knows of no other state with significant immigrant populations that is doing this now.

“There’s no asterisk on citizenship,” Olivas said. “Either you are or you are not.”

“This is going to be expensive for them to defend,” Olivas said of Florida. “It’s going to be foolish, and, ultimately, they’re going to lose.”

It’s unclear at this point whether state leaders will vigorously defend the policy, attempt to negotiate new rules via a settlement, or something in between. Officials at both the Florida Department of Education and the Board of Governors — the entities that Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys say created the tuition rule — have declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

The attorneys who filed suit say the policy is the result of administrative rules created in 2005, but they could not pinpoint who spearheaded the creation of those rules or why they did so. Though Florida state law deals with tuition residency issues, it delegates the responsibility to draw up specific rules to the Department of Education (for community colleges) and the Board of Governors (for state universities).


In this particular instance, state Rep. Reggie Fullwood, a Jacksonville Democrat, said he would like to take back that tuition-setting authority. Fullwood on Friday filed a bill that would grant in-state tuition to citizen children of undocumented immigrants provided they attend a Florida high school for four consecutive years and enroll in a Florida college within 12 months after graduation.

Though his bill comes on the heels of the just-filed lawsuit, Fullwood said it was actually in the works for several months — prompted by the difficulties encountered by one of his constituents, a U.S. citizen whose parents hail from Nigeria.

“None of us can control who our parents are,” Fullwood said. “These are all U.S. citizens, folks who have been here all their lives, and they deserve the right to have an affordable education.”

In a Republican-dominated state Legislature that has taken a no-tolerance posture toward illegal immigration, Fullwood acknowledges his bill faces a tough road.

There are at least some early indicators, however, that lawmakers realize this isn’t just a re-do of the Dream Act debate. The Legislature’s point man on immigration, Republican Rep. William Snyder of Stuart, on Friday declined comment on Fullwood’s bill, in part because it had just been filed, but also, he said, because this was a new issue.

State Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican and chair of the Florida Hispanic Caucus, said he supports Fullwood’s bill. Garcia also has supported an unsuccessful Florida version of the Dream Act in the past.

“The Dream Act is a little different,” Garcia said. “When you’re an American citizen you’re an American citizen.”

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