Removing One More Roadblock

Even as protesters march on UC San Francisco with signs decrying the University of California’s rapidly diminishing affordability, the California Supreme Court is doing its part to open the doors of the state’s public universities just a little bit wider.

Last Monday, seven justices unanimously upheld a bill that allows illegal immigrants living in California to pay in-state college tuition. The ruling is a reaction to a 2005 class-action suit called Martinez v. Regents of the University of California in which the irate parents of out-of-state students sued the UC Office of the President, arguing that their children should not have to pay higher student fees than illegal immigrants. This backlash is unwarranted, because illegal immigrants already contribute to California society and will only be more of a boon when armed with a college education.

The difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition in California can be as high as $13,316 — at UCSD, in-state students pay $9,401 while out-of-state students cough up $22,717. The 2001 Education Code and Assembly Bill 540 grants in-state tuition to all students who have had at least three years of high school education in California and obtained a GED or equivalent, regardless of their legal status. In the case of Martinez v. UC Regents, the court ruled that the code should continue applying to illegal immigrants, though it does not make students eligible to receive federal or state financial aid.

Those opposed to the ruling claim that it’s a violation of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act, which prohibits giving greater educational benefits to illegal immigrants than legal citizens.

Though AB 540 may seem like a raw deal for those who don’t chip in on the state level but pay taxes to the federal government — a small portion of which does come back to the university in the form of contracts and trickled-down state funds — the Martinez v. UC Regents case is based on more than just a dollar amount. Granting education access to illegal immigrants has historically been linked to the Fourteenth Amendment and issues of discrimination that make the necessity of such a law clear.

And it’s not like this is the first time the subject of illegal immigrants and education has come up; in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe, the Federal Supreme Court found that Texas education laws that withheld state funds for illegal immigrant children were unconstitutional. These laws, it said, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because restricting the ability of undocumented minors to educate themselves would gradually form a caste-like system that left illegal immigrants at the bottom. The Federal Supreme Court hypothesized that with no opportunities for upward mobility, the resulting social class of illiterate illegal immigrants would simply add to the growing rate of poverty.

The Martinez v. UC Regents case might seem like it just concerns a disparity in tuition prices — one offered to “illegal aliens” and one offered to “true Americans” (derogatory phrases used in conjunction to the recent court ruling) — but there are greater constitutional issues at stake.

Some argue that, since UC enrollment is open to all qualifying students, there is no issue of discrimination. But a world-class education at a cutting-edge university is just a pipe dream if it comes with a price tag that most of these lower-income students are unable to accommodate. Offering them a $13,316 discount on a college education will put a decent education within their price range.

Additionally, those out-of-state parents who are comparing their own contribution to UC’s coffers favorably to that of illegal immigrants may have the wrong end of the stick.

The reason that the University of California is so cheap for Golden State natives — comparatively speaking, and for now, at least — is that our families have spent years chipping in tax dollars that supports the state and, by proxy, our public universities. Detractors argue that since illegal immigrants dodge most of these taxes, they shouldn’t be able to go to the institution they have done nothing to support for the same price as those that have kept it afloat.

But with the common exceptions of payroll taxes and corporate income taxes, illegal immigrants do pay, same as the rest of us. In 2008, illegal immigrants contributed an estimated $9 billion dollars in taxes to the state, despite the fact that they do not benefit from social programs like Social Security. Though illegal immigrants cost the state $10.5 billion through education, health care,and incarceration, their huge contributions — monetary and otherwise — cannot be overlooked. There is a reason for this misconception; not all illegal immigrants pay taxes, but their financial contributions to this economy mean that they deserve the same education as the next taxpayer.

Additionally, higher numbers of college graduates — an expected outcome of allowing students to pay $11,285 instead of $34,164 — will only help California’s economy in the long run.

Every 30,000 students that earn a bachelor’s degree add $20 billion dollars to the state economy, increase state and local tax revenue by $1.2 billion a year, and bring about the creation of 174,000 new jobs. According to CSU Stanislaus, for every dollar invested in a California State University student, the student ultimately returns $4.62 to the state economy by being an asset to society. The potential economic boom that these new college students can provide is a long term benefit that cannot be overlooked.

Providing illegal immigrants with college educations is the first step in them receiving jobs and helping the economy. The D.R.E.A.M. Act, a piece of proposed federal legislation, will allow undocumented high school gradates to apply for conditional permanent residency — provided that they arrived in the U.S. as minors, lived here for at least five years, and are of good moral character. If, in the next six years, they enroll in and complete two years of college education or enlist in the military, they will be eligible for citizenship. The result of Martinez v. UC Regents coupled with the potential enactment of the D.R.E.A.M. Act will play an essential role in giving illegal immigrants the rights they fled to the United States to receive.

One inadvertent potential result of this ruling will, unfortunately, be a continued financial burden on the UC system. Many will claim that upholding this state education code will continue to hurt California’s economy, because for every illegal immigrant who pays in-state tuition, the state loses out on $23,000 in increased revenue. But Martinez v. UC Regents only upholds the status quo, it doesn’t take away money that was previously being funneled into the UC endowment. Still, with students still reeling from news that the UC system has raised tuition by 8 percent for the top 45 percent of the income bracket, fee hikes are likely going to be incorrectly attributed to this court ruling. More lawsuits from irate parents are sure pop up in the near future.

The California Supreme Court did right by future generations when it presented a unanimous front on this controversial subject. The appeals process means that this case will likely travel up to the United States Supreme Court; right-wing conservatives, indignant out-of-state parents and illegal immigrants alike will be waiting anxiously to see if the big nine will put this xenophobic backlash to rest for good.

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