ATLANTA — Immigrant rights attorneys on Wednesday filed a lawsuit challenging the Georgia university system's policy of denying in-state tuition to students brought to the country illegally as children but who have been granted temporary permission to stay.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of an immigrant rights group and two immigrant college students who graduated from Georgia high schools and live in the state but are required to pay out-of-state tuition at Perimeter College.
The lawsuit names as defendants the individual members of the Board of Regents, which governs the university system, as well as about two dozen state college and university presidents.
A University System of Georgia spokesman did not immediately respond to an email.
An Obama administration policy introduced in 2012 granted temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. to young people brought to the country illegally as children who meet certain criteria.
The University System of Georgia requires any student seeking in-state status for tuition purposes to provide verification of "lawful presence" in the U.S. The Regents have said students with temporary permission to stay under the 2012 program — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — do not meet that requirement
The lawsuit says the policy is pre-empted by federal immigration law and therefore violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. The policy also violates the Constitution's equal protection guarantee by denying in-state tuition without a constitutionally valid justification, the lawsuit says.
"In an era when too many purported leaders maliciously target hardworking immigrants prepared to contribute to our nation's future success, this Georgia university policy is antithetical to the state's own interests," MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas A. Saenz said in a news release. "The policy is also unlawful, and this suit promises to reopen the doors of higher education to some of the state's best and brightest students."
The lawsuit asks a judge to declare the university system's policy illegal and to prohibit its enforcement. It also seeks damages for economic harm suffered by the two students and the immigrant rights group, as well as repayment of tuition fees and other costs.
One of the two students, Lorena Guillen, said she's thinking about leaving school because she can't afford the higher rates. The other student, Karla Lopez, has a pre-med major and wants to become a doctor. She takes a lower number of credit hours each year than she'd like to because of the higher tuition rate, the lawsuit says. Because of that, it will take her more than four years to get a degree.
The Georgia Latino Association for Human Rights works to promote Latinos' rights, including the right to education. The group has had to use time and resources that would otherwise be used for other purposes to help students who are not eligible for in-state tuition, the lawsuit says.
A group of immigrant students previously filed a lawsuit challenging the policy in state court, but that suit was dismissed based on the principle of sovereign immunity, which shields the state and its agencies from being sued unless the General Assembly has explicitly waived that protection.
Charles Kuck, a lawyer for those students, has said he plans to take legal action in state court against the individual members of the Board of Regents, who are not protected by sovereign immunity, because he believes they are failing to follow their own rules and guidelines by refusing in-state tuition to young people who are lawfully present in the country.