MIAMI (AP) - Caroline Roa was born in Florida, graduated from a Miami high school and has a state voter's registration card and driver's license. Yet when she went to enroll in college, she was told she would have to pay out-of-state tuition. The reason? Her father is an undocumented immigrant.
"I was always told that if I worked hard and did well in school I could get a scholarship to college," she said. "Instead of having the chance to succeed as other Florida residents have, my efforts were unfairly blocked."
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Roa and four other students who were all born in the United States. In each case, their parent's immigration status meant they were classified as "non-residents" and charged a significantly higher tuition.
Roa is now working two jobs instead of going to college.
"This is not right or just and it isn't the America I know," she said.
The lawsuit was filed against Florida education officials and claims the policy discriminates against citizens and violates the Constitution. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates hundreds of students are being overcharged and thousands more, like Roa, are unable to afford the out-of-state tuition and forgo a college education.
"This policy is hurting scores of young Floridians who are trying to go to college," said Miriam Haskell, a lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They want to be doctors, they want to be teachers, they want to provide for their families and support their community. And this is their community."
A spokeswoman for the state university system said they had not received a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment. The Board of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Florida policy has been in place for several years, but the Southern Poverty Law Center said their class action lawsuit represents the first legal challenge.
California had a similar issue in which the citizen children of undocumented immigrants were being charged as non-residents, but the matter was resolved in favor of the students through a consent decree. Similarly, in Colorado, the attorney general issued a formal opinion in 2007 determining that legal residents of the state were eligible for in-state tuition even if their parents were undocumented immigrants.
"Because it is the student, rather than the parents, who is the legal beneficiary of in-state tuition status, the fact that the parents may be in the country illegally is not a bar to the student's receipt of that benefit," Attorney General John W. Suthers ruled in response to a question from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Jerri Katzerman, director of educational advocacy for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said a Virginia policy similar to the Florida one has been challenged successfully in favor of specific students.
Students who want to attend a Florida public college or university but are classified as "non-residents" because of their parents are charged more than triple the cost of tuition. The policy affects all students who are under the age of 24 and claimed as dependents by parents on their tax returns.
Roa was accepted to Miami Dade College this year, but soon found out she didn't qualify for in-state tuition, even though she had lived in Miami-Dade County her entire life. According to the lawsuit, Roa couldn't show proof of her father's legal immigration status and was therefore considered a non-resident.
She hopes to one day be able to afford college and study psychology.
Wendy Ruiz, another student named in the lawsuit, was born in Miami and is an honors student at Miami Dade College. Because she is charged as an out-of-state resident, she will need three years instead of two to complete her degree. The lawsuit states she attempted to apply to Florida International University, but was required to submit information on her parents' immigration status in order to file the application.
"My mother has always taught me that if I want something that bad to fight for it," said Ruiz, who wants to go to medical school. "All I want is to be treated the same as every other Florida college student."
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