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The Fight Over College Subsidies for Illegal Immigrants

California’s debate over subsidies and scholarships for undocumented students in state-run colleges and universities continued, as Earl De Vries, a California resident, recently sued the University of California’s Board of Regents. This lawsuit questions whether or not there is an overstep of federal law, by providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at the cost of taxpayers. The debate over scholarships for illegal immigrants is complex. Here we discuss the current debate, its history, and the ramifications.

The Current Debate

Previous laws allow for illegal immigrants attending California State Universities and California Community Colleges to receive public benefits such as financial aid and in-state tuition. It is important to note that University of California campuses were not included in these laws. Despite this, the University of California’s Board of Regents has offered financial aid for undocumented students and similar public benefits that were provided by law for California State Universities and California Community Colleges. Most notable among these benefits is in-state tuition, which provides the foundation for de Vries’ lawsuit.

The Regents have indirect precedence in California on their side. In Martinez vs. The Regents of the University of California, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor the Regents. The issues were similar, though the legal grounds were significantly different. These are discussed below.

The Issue’s History

Although this latest lawsuit aims to challenge the UC’s Board of Regents on the grounds of state law, the outcome of this case is also tangled in the fight between state law and federal law. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Section 1621 says that illegal immigrants can only be made eligible for local and state benefits if their state of residence passes laws affirming their eligibility. Section 505 of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, however, states that state-run colleges and universities cannot offer in-state tuition for undocumented students in higher education if the state does not also offer the same considerations to out-of-state students.

The current lawsuit doesn’t rely heavily on these arguments, however, and is aimed solely at the University of California. This is because California’s state laws are at odds with federal laws. California is not the only state caught in this battle. Other state institutions have seen similar lawsuits, but they haven’t received a unified response. California’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of benefits for illegal immigrants in Martinez vs. The Regents of the University of California. Unlike the current lawsuit, however, the plaintiffs were out-of-state US citizens who argued they were being denied their rights under the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Section 505, as explained above.

The Issue’s Ramifications

This case, and the cases leading up to it, impact several critical elements of American society. First, it challenges the role of federal vs. state law. The separation of state and federal rights has always been a contentious issue. They will continue to be so, and California is a pivotal state in the current debate.

As de Vries’ case shows, this is a taxpayer issue as well. No matter how large or small the number of illegal immigrant students attending the University of California may be, they will still receive public funds. Headlines touting free college for illegal immigrants are not entirely accurate, but they do address taxpayers’ concerns. For many taxpayers, this is not necessarily a matter of finances, but a matter of legal principle.

The issues surrounding the de Vries case extend well beyond the plaintiff’s specific complaints. Although other states are fighting similar battles over illegal immigration and education, California may set the precedent for undocumented students in higher education. As state law clashes with federal restrictions, similar lawsuits concerning scholarships for illegal immigrants in California and the rest of the country will undoubtedly develop.

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