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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.