SPLC pushes for end to Florida’s discriminatory tuition policy

Wendy Ruiz has lived in Florida her entire life. She graduated from a Florida public high school and enrolled at Miami Dade College.

But because she can’t prove the federal immigration status of her parents, she must pay out-of-state tuition, which can more than triple the cost of a college education in Florida.

Thanks to this policy, Ruiz must work multiple jobs to pay for her education. And a two-year degree will take at least three years to earn. She simply can’t afford to take a full course load.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is urging a federal court to strike down state policies that discriminate against aspiring college students who are U.S. citizens and Florida residents, but are treated as “out-of-state” residents solely because of their parents’ federal immigration status.

The SPLC pushed for the end of this discriminatory policy in a motion for summary judgment filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. State legislators have failed to pass a bill that would put an end to this discrimination against some U.S. citizens who reside in Florida.

“Florida’s policy, which puts a major barrier between these hardworking American students and a good education, is unconscionable,” said Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “We’ve asked the court to strike down this unconstitutional policy. Florida legislators have failed to protect these U.S. citizen students, who are taxpayers, voters and our next generation of leaders.”

Florida law only requires dependent students to prove their parents have resided in Florida for 12 consecutive months before college enrollment in order to receive in-state tuition rates. But within the past two years, the state's board of education and board of governors have required that students also prove their parents' federal immigration status. If unable to do so, these U.S. citizen students are classified as “out-of-state” residents, even if they've lived their entire lives in Florida.

The difference between tuition for these students is staggering. At Florida State University, the annual out-of-state tuition is $14,444 higher than the in-state tuition rate. At the University of Florida, the difference comes to more than $22,200 per year.

The SPLC filed a federal class action lawsuit in October challenging these policies that treat students who are U.S. citizen and residents of Florida as non-residents solely because their parents are undocumented residents. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Ruiz and others, charged that this is an unconstitutional practice.

Noel Saucedo, another SPLC client in this case, is a U.S. citizen who was lived in Florida since 2006. He graduated from a Florida public high school in June 2010, and enrolled in Miami Dade College with a full scholarship to the two-year program.

Saucedo is unable to prove the federal immigration status of his parents. As a result, he was charged out-of-state tuition, and the amount of his scholarship will not cover his full tuition costs. It will take him more than two years to earn his two-year degree because he cannot afford to take a full course load every semester.

During the last legislative session, the Florida legislature failed to ensure tuition equality for all American students who are Florida residents.

“Legislators took some bold steps forward last session toward resolving this issue.” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office. “The bills proposed, however, would have imposed additional hurdles on these U.S. citizen students, thereby denying full equality. Legislators can finish the job this year by passing legislation that applies the same residency requirements for all American citizen students.”

To ensure equality, the legislature would have to pass a law that only requires U.S. citizen students to prove they have resided in the state for 12 consecutive months, regardless of their parents' immigration status.