A federal judge has ruled the state is discriminating against potentially thousands of U.S. citizens who live in Florida by charging them higher out-of-state tuition as nonresident students simply because their parents may lack legal U.S. residency.
U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore found Friday that Florida's rule classifying such students according to their parents' undocumented immigration status violates the Constitution's equal-protection provision.
"By virtue of their classification, (these Florida students) are denied a benefit in the form of significantly lower tuition rates to the state's public post-secondary educational institutions," the judge found in a 19-page opinion that was highly critical of the state's policy.
"This creates an additional obstacle for (them) to attain post-secondary education from one of the state's public institutions that is not faced by other residents."
Moore, who was nominated by the first President George Bush and confirmed in 1992, further found the policy "does not advance any legitimate state interest, much less the state's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents."
The state's Department of Education said it has received the judge's ruling and is reviewing it.
The Florida students' lawsuit was filed in October 2011 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center represents students who are U.S. citizens and Florida residents whose parents cannot prove legal immigration status.
Florida's policy is the result of administrative rules created in 2005. Though 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).
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimated hundreds or thousands of Florida students could be affected by the judge's ruling. As the policy stands, students who are classified as "nonresidents" in Florida can be charged more than triple the cost of in-state tuition. The policy affects those under age 24 and who are claimed as dependents by parents.
The center, based in Montgomery, Ala., hailed the judge's decision.
"Today is a great day for these young people across the state of Florida who simply wanted the opportunity to get an education and, with that, a chance for the American Dream," said the center's deputy legal director, Jerri Katzerman.
"This policy, which was blatantly unconstitutional, will no longer be a roadblock for these young students who may very well be the state's leaders of tomorrow."
In the case of Wendy Ruiz, who was born and raised in Miami, the state's policy has created a financial hardship for the U.S. citizen. 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, the lead plaintiff in the case, has been charged higher-priced out-of-state tuition at Miami Dade College — 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.
Ruiz must work multiple part-time jobs just to pay for one class. Other similarly affected students have given up on college.
She was unavailable for comment. But in an interview last year with the Miami Herald at the time the suit was filed, she said: "As an American, and a lifelong Florida resident, I deserve the same opportunities."
The ruling gives immigration advocates another victory. Earlier this year, the Obama administration decided to allow students who came to the U.S. as children a chance to seek deferred action on their immigration status.
Miami Herald staff writer Laura Isensee contributed to this report.