Activists against illegal immigration are hoping that a new lawsuit will fuel their efforts to repeal Utah's law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at colleges and university.
"If Utah doesn't do it, it's going to be facing the possibility of one of these," attorney Kris Kobach said, holding up a copy of a class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday against California's higher education system.
Kobach spoke at a legislative meeting of the Utah Minuteman Project at Salt Lake Community College. Kobach is also co-counsel of a similar federal suit filed in Kansas.
"If Kansas was the initial probe, this is the H-bomb," he said. The class size is over 60,000 students who paid out-of-state tuition in California, and the damages could be well over $600 million, he said.
"Look out. Two states are down now," Kobach said. "In Utah, the liability is about $31 million."
Earlier this year, the Education Interim Committee recommended repealing the tuition law after hearing from Kobach and a few University of Utah students paying out-of-state tuition who are considering a lawsuit here.
Mike Sizer, chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, said it's "more than likely" that seven of the students will file suit and are eyeing the Legislature.
However, Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah said he hoped lawmakers wouldn't let themselves be bullied by threats of lawsuits when they consider the proposed repeal.
"These kids in colleges and universities in Utah are self-paid," Yapias said. "They're not depending on any federal or public money for their education . . . it would be devastating for these kids to lose the opportunity they have now to get an education."
Yapias noted that the Kansas lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge who said the plaintiffs didn't have standing to bring the suit. That dismissal is under appeal to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also oversees Utah.
California, Kansas and Utah all allow students who attend a high school in-state for at least three years and graduate from an in-state high school to pay in-state tuition. They are among nine states that give undocumented students a way to pay in-state tuition.
Utah Assistant Attorney General Bill Evans has said that Utah's tuition law complies with federal law because it's equally available to U.S. citizens on the basis of where they went to high school, not their state of residence. He has also said it would be difficult for students paying out-of-state tuition to sue because the law doesn't apply to them.
Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, who sponsored the in-state tuition benefit, could not be reached for immediate comment.
The repeal's sponsor, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said, "It's just flat out against the law. I don't think the state of Utah can afford a lawsuit."
In the 2004-05 school year, Utah's nonresident students paid an average $8,379 more in tuition and fees than those paying in-state rates.
The California suit filed Wednesday in Yolo County Superior Court claims that it's against federal law to give illegal immigrants "any post-secondary benefit" unless that benefit is also available to all U.S. students. The suit also claims the tuition waiver violates the out-of-state student's constitutional rights and state civil rights.
Ricardo Vazquez, spokesman for the University of California, said attorneys had yet to review the lawsuit. In 2004-05, 70 percent of the 1,339 students who received the tuition benefit system wide were U.S. citizens or legal residents, Vazquez said.
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