In-state tuition case argued before Ga. Supreme Court

A group of immigrants who don’t want to be charged more for college tuition than other Georgia residents took their appeal Friday to the Georgia Supreme Court.

For more than a year the 39 plaintiffs and their attorney Charles Kuck have fought to be allowed the cheaper in-state rates instead of out-of-state tuition, which can cost thousands of dollars more.

Two lower courts have ruled that the legal principle of “sovereign immunity” prevents the Board of Regents from being sued in this case. If the upper court rules in their favor, the case could go back to Fulton County Superior Court for a ruling on the tuition policy.

Much of the hour-long session Friday included arcane arguments over the Board of Regents’ classification and authorities under the law. No decision was issued. Most cases are decided within six months of oral arguments.

“We have a right to seek a petition for a redress of our grievances which cannot be ignored,” Kuck told justices during the special session in Ellijay. “We’re simply asking for simple clarification of what words mean in a policy adopted by the Board of Regents.”

The students have argued that being accepted into the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program makes them “legally present” in the United States, which is required to receive in-state tuition in Georgia’s public university system. The DACA program grants a temporary reprieve from deportation to immigrants who were illegally brought to the country as children and haven’t been convicted of felonies.

It is not known how many people the court’s ruling would affect. About 21,150 Georgians have been approved for the DACA program since it started three years ago. A University System survey from 2010 found 501 “undocumented” students enrolled.

The in-state tuition question has become a national issue, with presidential candidates debating it. Twenty-one states allow students without legal status to pay in-state rates, and another eight states — including Georgia — introduced legislation this year to also offer the cheaper rates.

Justices asked an attorney for the Regents Friday how a person would get clarity on what the law requires when the state is taking a position that residents disagree with.

“The rights they are asking to be enforced are only created through their interpretation” of the statutes, said Russell Willard, senior assistant attorney general.

“If the Regents adopted a policy that flew in the face of a clear statutory provision, you would have a fatal flaw in the statute itself,” Willard said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.