In the race to see which state can provide the most degraded and dehumanizing environment for undocumented immigrants, Arizona and Alabama have grabbed the headlines. Largely unnoticed is Florida, home to nearly one million Cuban refugees and their descendants, which has come up with the most bizarre anti-immigrant policy of all.
Beginning last year, Florida’s higher education authorities have treated American citizens born in the U.S. as non-residents for tuition purposes if they can’t demonstrate that their parents are in the country legally.
The government can’t single out citizens for disfavored treatment without a good reason. The Supreme Court even ruled unanimously that an Illinois village violated a homeowner’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection by demanding from her a bigger easement than it required of her neighbors as the price of connecting her home to the municipal water supply.
A few feet of land may not have made a life-changing difference to the plaintiff, but consider the difference between in-state and non-resident tuition at the University of Florida: $5,700 a year versus $27,936. It is the difference between a college education and none.
It seems unfair, as the Supreme Court acknowledged 30 years ago in Plyler v. Doe when it held that Texas could not deprive undocumented children of a free public K-through-12 education, to blame children for the wrongdoing of their parents. As Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. observed in his concurring opinion, it is also self-destructive, creating a permanent underclass of uneducated people.
The Supreme Court has never extended Plyler to give undocumented children rights to higher education. Alabama and South Carolina bar them entirely from its public universities and colleges. Other states let them enroll; a dozen states, including Texas, treat them as residents, entitled to in-state tuition rates.
The Florida situation is worse. Its victims are, after all, American citizens, as American as Rick Scott, Florida’s governor, who said that the state’s universities should focus on “practical” subjects, not on political science, psychology, or anthropology. (“We don’t need them here,” Governor Scott said of anthropologists. University students in Florida are circulating petitions to have the governor’s name kept off their diplomas.)
The students who filed a lawsuit last month challenging the policy are as American as Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is leading a campaign to amend the Constitution. He would repeal, for the children of undocumented immigrants, the Fourteenth Amendment’s grant of “birthright citizenship”. The Florida policy (it’s not a statute, but a rule adopted by the state’s Board of Education and its University System) amounts to repeal of birthright citizenship by regulation.
“Corruption of blood” was a familiar feature of the common law in England. A person found guilty of treason would be barred from passing his estate on to his children, who would inherit nothing but the corrupted blood line.
The framers of the United States Constitution considered and rejected the concept. Article III, the judiciary article, contains this sentence: “The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attained.” As James Madison expressed the thought more directly at the time, the purpose was to prevent Congress “from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author.”
Nor were the founders content to leave the matter there. Congress enacted a law in 1790 to provide that “no conviction or judgment . . . shall work corruption of blood or any forfeiture of estate.” Although not in so many words, the principle that guilt is not inheritable lay behind the modern Supreme Court’s gradual recognition of rights for children born out of wedlock, deemed by society to be “illegitimate.”
The lawsuit filed last month in Federal District Court in Miami by the Southern Poverty Law Center asks the court to do the obvious: rule that Florida’s “policy and practice of classifying dependent United States citizen students who reside in Florida as ‘non-residents’ based on their parents’ federal immigration status denies these United States citizens equal protection of the laws in violation of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status on behalf of “all past, present, and future United States citizens” affected by the policy, names five individual plaintiffs. Two were forced for financial reasons to withdraw from Miami-Dade College when the policy took effect. Two others can’t afford to take all the credits necessary to complete their degrees on time, and one, who would have received a full scholarship as a resident, couldn’t enroll at all. Four were born in Miami and one in Los Angeles. All are eligible to be President of the United States.
It’s not clear what defense Florida will come up with. Bills to overturn the policy were filed within the last few weeks in both houses of the Florida Legislature. If the state is lucky, one will pass. The State Senate sponsor, Rene Garcia of Hialeah, is a Republican and chairman of the Florida Hispanic Caucus. “When you’re an American citizen, you’re an American citizen,” he said.
Via The New York Times.