By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida officials on Wednesday were reviewing a federal judge's ruling ordering the state to stop charging U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants higher out-of-state tuition at public colleges, a practice he declared "unconstitutional."
The case was brought by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of a group of students who were denied less expensive in-state tuition despite being U.S. citizens, Florida high school graduates and residents of the state.
U.S.-born students of illegal immigrants are eligible for in-state tuition at Florida universities if they meet the standard residency requirements applicable to their peers whose parents are U.S. citizens, U.S. District Judge Michael Moore ruled last Friday.
"The state regulations deny a benefit and create unique obstacles to attain public post-secondary public education for U.S. citizen children who would otherwise qualify for in-state tuition but for their parents' undocumented immigration status," Moore wrote in a 19-page opinion.
In determining resident status for tuition purposes, Florida officials look at the citizenship status of parents if the student is under 24 and still considered a dependent. In his ruling, Moore concluded that a student's family is irrelevant.
"It is the plaintiffs who, upon graduating from a post-secondary educational institution, receive their names on diplomas, and it is plaintiffs - not plaintiffs' parents, cousins, or siblings - who are entitled to the benefits conferred by such a degree," Moore stated.
"We are thrilled this discriminatory practice is at an end," said Jerri Katzerman, Southern Poverty's deputy legal director. "This policy, which was blatantly unconstitutional, will no longer be a roadblock for these young students who may very well be the state's leaders of tomorrow."
The ruling would benefit from 9,000 to 12,000 students according to research using data from the U.S. Census and the Pew Hispanic Center, Katzerman said. It came barely two weeks after an order by the Obama administration went into effect protecting more than 1 million illegal immigrant students from deportation if they meet certain criteria.
Each of the five plaintiffs in the case graduated from a Florida high school in 2010 or 2011 with plans to attend a Florida public college or university. Non-resident tuition in Florida costs about three times as much as in-state tuition.
Florida is the only state with regulations that specifically deny in-state tuition to U.S.-born students of illegal immigrants, though similar cases have arisen in other states.
An American-born student in New Jersey won an appeal last month after she was wrongly denied financial assistance for tuition at a state college because her parents were not citizens. Unlike Florida, students in New Jersey are entitled to assistance if they have lived in the state at least a year.
A spokesman for Florida Governor Rick Scott referred questions to the state Department of Education.
"Our staff, general counsel and board are reviewing the judge's decision and will consult with counsel from the State Board of Education, as well as with Florida's attorney general," Florida State University System spokeswoman Diane McCain said.
The state argued that if the children of illegal immigrants were granted eligibility other students living anywhere in the United States could also apply, costing the state vast sums of lost revenue.
Moore dismissed that argument, saying it was based on a misinterpretation of federal law, adding that it also flew in the face of the state's own self-interest.
" U.S. citizen students who reside in Florida according to their parents' undocumented federal immigration status does not advance any legitimate state interest, much less the state's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents," he said.
(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami. Editing by David Adams, Tom Brown and Eric Beech)