State Supreme Court Upholds Tuition Breaks for Illegal Immigrants

Read the court's ruling in Martinez v. UC Regents »

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In an unanimous decision issued this morning, California's Supreme Court upheld a state law allowing state colleges and universities to grant tuition breaks to qualifying nonresident students regardless of their legal status.

The decision upholds AB 540 - a 2001 state bill that allows nonresident students to pay cheaper in-state tuition if they have attended a California high school for at least three years - and overturns a lower court's ruling that found the bill in violation of a 1996 federal immigration law.

In 2005, Robert Martinez and 41 other legal U.S. residents who attended California schools and paid nonresident tuition filled a class action suit against the UC alleging that AB 540 tuition violates federal immigration law by giving special benefits to illegal immigrants and not to U.S. residents.

The court sided with the UC, CSU and community college systems who argued that the AB 540 does not violate federal law because students do not qualify for the waivers based on their residence, but rather on their attendance at a state high school for three years. The states' universities said the majority of students who qualify for waivers are legal residents of other states. Nearly 80 percent of the 2,019 students in the UC system who received reduced tuition under the law in the 2008-09 academic year were U.S. citizens or legal residents, according to the university.

In a statement released later in the morning, UC President Mark Yudof praised the court for its decision.

"Through their hard work and perseverance, these students have earned the opportunity to attend UC," Yudof said in the statement. "Their accomplishments should not be disregarded or their futures jeopardized."

Javier Panzar is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected]

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