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Immigrants Sue Missouri Schools Over Higher Tuition Rates

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Updated: Monday, 7:43 p.m.:

The ACLU of Missouri on Tuesday filed separate lawsuits on behalf of three Missouri college students who were billed for tuition at the nonresident rate because of their immigration status.

All three came to the U.S. as youngsters and live here under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the lawsuits state. DACA allows undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children to stay provided they meet certain requirements.

The students, who are identified only as Jane or John Doe, respectively live in Independence, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; and St. Louis County. Named as defendants are Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City (MCC), the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri and St. Louis Community College, representing the institutions the students attend or attended.

“Our Missouri public institutions of higher learning exist to open the doors of opportunity to hard-working students striving to get ahead,” Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement.

“Now, there are extreme financial burdens being put on the backs of students already struggling to achieve their goals of higher education. To punish students who had no say in how they arrived in this country is not only mean-spirited, it is against the law.”

The lawsuits contend the students were eligible for in-district or in-state tuition rates but instead were charged the much higher out-of-state rates. The Independence student’s complaint says she was forced to drop out of MCC’s Penn Valley campus as a result.  

The three are challenging the colleges’ enforcement of the preamble to a bill enacted this year appropriating money for the Department of Higher Education. The law’s preamble language forbids the expenditure of funds at public colleges and universities that offer tuition rates “to any student with an unlawful immigration status in the United States that is less than the tuition rate charged to international students …”

All three suits say that Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill into law knowing the preamble language was unenforceable and contrary to existing law.

“The language in the preamble is not found in the main text of the House Bill 3,” the lawsuits state. “The language in the preamble was never intended to prevent Missouri schools from charging in-state tuition to DACA students, including Doe.”

Representatives of the University of Missouri and St. Louis Community College could not immediately be reached for comment. MCC issued a written statement saying it "is committed to serving students and our community within the confines of the regulatory parameters provided by state and federal requirements. As a practice, MCC does not comment on pending legal matters."

The Kansas City, Kansas, student, who attends the University of Missouri-Kansas City, arrived in the U.S. when he was just over a year old, according to his complaint. It states that he was a three-sport athlete in high school, received a favorable DACA determination from the Department of Homeland Security as recently as this year and worked at a bank while attending Kansas City Community College  to save money so he could attend UMKC. He was accepted at UMKC in April and enrolled in July, the complaint states.

In-state tuition at UMKC is $371.69 per credit hour. Nonresident tuition is $810.39 per credit hour. 

House Bill 3 was sponsored by Missouri Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who told St. Louis Public Radio in August that it was meant to clarify state funding policies for colleges and universities.

Schools can still charge DACA students in-state tuition but can’t use state funding to do so.

Vanessa Crawford-Aragón, executive director of the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates, told St. Louis Public Radio that DACA students were counting on the lower tuition rates because they attended Missouri high schools, were accepted into the schools, and their parents worked and paid taxes to the state.

Fitzpatrick said his intent was not to punish DACA students. He told St. Louis Public Radio, however, that he was concerned about illegal immigration.

“I think the more we project that we’re going to provide benefits, whether it be in-state tuition or scholarships or any other benefit, for students who came here or remain here illegally, I think that that’s just going to worsen the illegal immigration problem that we have,” he said.

Editor’s note: KCUR is licensed by the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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