The far-reaching immigration debate in Florida and the nation has been going on for years, but until last week, the plight of students like Wendy Ruiz — an aspiring podiatrist — had been largely invisible.
Born and raised in Miami, Ruiz is a U.S. citizen. But in the eyes of Florida’s higher education system, she’s a dependent student whose parents are undocumented immigrants — and not considered legal Florida residents.
As such, Ruiz is charged higher-priced out-of-state tuition, even though she has a Florida birth certificate, Florida driver’s license and is a registered Florida voter. One semester of in-state tuition at Miami Dade College costs about $1,200, while out-of-state students pay roughly $4,500.
Many students are simply unable to absorb the increased cost. Ruiz has been attending Miami Dade College and, so far, has a 3.7 GPA but must work multiple part-time jobs just to pay for one class. Other similarly-affected students have completely given up on college.
“As an American, and a lifelong Florida resident, I deserve the same opportunities,” Ruiz said. “I know that I will be successful because I have never wanted something so bad in my life like I want this.”
Last week, Ruiz and several other South Florida students emerged as the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging Florida’s in-state residency guidelines. The same week, a Jacksonville state lawmaker filed a bill that would grant in-state tuition to students like Ruiz.
The lawsuit and the proposed legislation have focused attention on a little-known issue in Florida, where immigration activists have long concentrated on passage of a federal Dream Act.
The proposed Dream Act has languished in Congress for years. It would legalize certain undocumented immigrants who have been accepted into college or the military. These young people were typically brought to the United States illegally as children. Proponents argue they should not be penalized for the illegal actions of their parents.
The Dream Act remains a hot-button political issue. Advocates for a stricter, hard-line immigration policy say passage would reward those who entered the country illegally.
At a recent Republican presidential primary debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry got hammered for his support of a state law that allowed undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition.
Unlike those who would benefit from the Dream Act, the issue for students like Ruiz is radically different because they are, in fact, U.S. citizens.
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