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Justices Decline Case on Tuition Benefit for Immigrants

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a challenge to a California law that provides in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students who have attended high school in the state for three years.

The 2001 state law was challenged on behalf of a class of U.S. students paying out-of-state tuition rates at California colleges and universities. Their suit alleged that the state law conflicts with a 1996 federal immigration statute that contains a provision barring states from providing in-state tuition rates to unlawful aliens unless they provide the same rates to U.S. students from any state.

The Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, which brought the suit, says in court papers that nine other states have similar laws.

"Action by this court is needed to ensure that more states do not follow California's policy of calculated defiance and thwart Congress's intent to deny residence-based postsecondary education benefits to illegal aliens," the institute said in its Supreme Court appeal in Martinez v. Regents of the University of California (Case No. 10-1029).

The institute was appealing a November 2010 decision of the California Supreme Court that the state statute did not conflict with the federal immigration law. Rather than conferring in-state tuition benefits based on "residence," the statute provided the benefits based on high school attendance and graduation in the state, the state high court said.

The California high court said that many nonresident students qualify for in-state tuition under the state's law, including children who attend boarding schools in California and those who attended three years of high school in the state but moved before graduation.

The state's "criteria are not the same as residence, nor are they a de facto or surrogate residency requirement," the California Supreme Court said.

The Immigration Reform Law Institute, in its appeal, called that interpretation "implausible."

"Congress could not have intended to allow states to play semantic games in order to give resident tuition to illegal aliens," the institute said. "Congress intended to deny illegal immigrants resident tuition rates."

The group points out that resident tuition is substantially less expensive than out-of-state rates; at the flagship University of California at Berkeley, for example, resident tuition is some $6,230 per semester, compared with $17,670 for non-residents.

California's Board of Regents urged the justices in a brief not to take up the case, saying among other things that there was no conflict among the federal courts of appeals on the issue.

The Supreme Court declined the immigration group's appeal on June 6 without any comment.

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