Lawsuit Challenges Florida’s Unconstitutionally Higher Tuition For U.S. Citizen Children Of Undocumented Immigrants

Yesterday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a group of United States citizens who were denied in-state tuition at Florida colleges because of who their parents are:

Wendy Ruiz is an American citizen, a native of Miami, where she was born in 1992. She has a Florida birth certificate. She has a Florida high school diploma. She has a Florida voter registration card, a Florida driver’s license and a Florida bank account. She is an honor student in her second year at Miami Dade College–as an out-of-state student.

Ruiz is paying $377 per credit hour, instead of the $105.50 afforded in-state residents. That works out to an annual tuition and fees bill of $9,000 instead of the $2,500 in-state residents pay. Ruiz can’t afford the normal, 12-credit-per-semester load, though that’s what she’d rather take. So she’ll end up taking three years to finish her two-year degree.

Why? Because her parents cannot show proof of her parents’ legal immigration status. Florida’s college and university system’s rule is unbending. A student’s residency status is irrelevant no matter how American, no matter how Floridian. Ruiz could have been Miss Florida for all the university system cares. It’s her parents’ residency status that counts, which also means that for countless students whose parents are being forced to move out of the state for economic reasons, they take their child’s in-state rate away with them.

It’s profoundly cruel when states treat young people who spent all but the very beginning of their life in the United States as if they were strangers. But Florida’s law is even more insidious. Wendy Ruiz is no less an American than Mitt Romney, John Boehner or Barack Obama. States have no right whatsoever to single her out simply because they do not approve of who her parents are.


Indeed, Ruiz’ equal claim to her full status as a United States citizen is written unambiguously into the Constitution itself. Under the 14th Amendment,

[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Although this Privileges and Immunities Clause largely laid dormant for much of American history, the Supreme Court held more than a decade ago that it forbids states from singling out a group of American citizens for inferior treatment. As the Court held in Saenz v. Roe, once an American takes residence in a state, they are guaranteed “the same rights as other citizens of that State.”

So there is no question that Florida law is invalid and must be declared unconstitutional. Wendy Ruiz is an American and Florida has a constitutional obligation to treat her like one.