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Preserving a Lifeline to College and Daring to DREAM

Michael Tan,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project
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November 17, 2010

The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday (PDF) that students who attend at least three years of high school in California and graduate are eligible for in-state tuition rates at California public colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status. The court found that federal law did not bar California from offering tuition equality to students. California is one of 10 states with similar laws on the books.

The ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) in the case, Martinez v. Regents of the University of California, along with the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

The decision is a boon to students like Leslie, whose story was recently featured in the New York Times Magazine. According to the Times, Leslie was just 6 years old when her single mother brought her to the United States. Without California’s in-state tuition law, Leslie — who already holds down three part-time jobs to put herself through school — would have effectively been barred from pursuing a college education. Yet today, Leslie is a thriving history major at the University of California, Los Angeles, a student activist, and an aspiring marathon runner with plans for grad school.

In-state tuition laws provide a lifeline for hard-working students like Leslie, many of whom were brought to this country based on the choices of their parents and grew up in low-income households. Such students have persevered, often against tough odds, to graduate from high school and gain acceptance into a state university or college. They deserve the same opportunity to obtain an affordable education as their classmates. Opening the door for students like Leslie also promotes civic integration and leads to increased earning power and disposable incomes that stimulate economic growth in state economies.

The ACLU has long protected the rights of immigrants by ensuring equal protection and fairness under our laws. To this end, the ACLU has fought to preserve the option for states to afford students tuition equality regardless of immigration status against attack in the courts and legislatures. For this reason, the ACLU also supports passage of the DREAM Act (PDF), which Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have committed to advancing in the lame-duck session.

The DREAM Act would clarify what the California Supreme Court recognized: that federal law does not bar states from making the policy choice to afford students equal access to education. By repealing a provision of federal law that restrictionists claim bars in-state tuition laws, the DREAM Act would resolve any doubt that states have the option to provide tuition equality to their students. Passage of the DREAM Act will help ensure that states are free to enact policies, like California’s, that promote immigrant integration and further the realization of constitutional rights.

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