When a Florida Senate committee rejected an effort earlier this year to stop charging higher out-of-state tuition to the American-born children of Florida's illegal immigrant residents, it embodied the worst anti-immigrant elements of the Republican Party. Now a federal court in Miami has appropriately ruled that the tuition double standard creates an unconstitutional "second tier of U.S. citizenship" and has to end. The state should accept the court's decision, because it removes an obstacle to ambitious young Floridians pursuing higher education.
Florida charges out-of-state students four times or more what Florida residents pay to attend a public college or university. This encourages Floridians to remain in the state for their education and careers, and it rewards the state's investment of tax dollars in its institutions of higher learning. But under the rules, establishing residency for students under age 24 depends on the legal status of their parents. Illegal immigrants' children who are U.S. citizens and may have resided in Florida their entire lives are told they are out of luck when applying to state schools as residents. They have to pay the higher rate.
Fixing this unfair policy would have been a cinch for any Legislature not in the sway of extreme anti-immigration forces. But despite multiple years of effort and a nudge by former Gov. Jeb Bush to consider the issue, the discriminatory policy has remained in force, hampering the aspirations of potentially thousands of Florida's young people, many of them Hispanic.
The relief granted by the federal court rectifies a wrong with a straightforward reading of the federal Equal Protection Clause. U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore rejected the tuition policy on behalf of a number of young people caught in its grip, saying that the state must treat all U.S. citizens equally. Moore found that the tuition differential for students with illegal-immigrant parents "does not advance any legitimate state interest, much less the state's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents." Moreover, this is not a state benefit flowing to illegal immigrants, Moore said. The students, not the parents, benefit from the in-state tuition.
In a similar state court ruling last month in New Jersey, the court ended the practice of determining eligibility for financial aid for U.S.-born students based on the legal status of their parents.
Florida's Department of Education has not said whether it will appeal the court ruling, but it would be legally foolish and a waste of taxpayer money to fight it. The court did what the Legislature should have done. It got rid of an illegal and counterproductive policy. Consider it a gift to the state and let the ruling stand.