ACLU sues Mo. schools for denying tuition benefits to illegal immigrants

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing three public colleges in Missouri for denying in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, claiming that the law the schools are following is invalid.

The Missouri chapter of the ACLU announced in a press release Tuesday that it has filed lawsuits against the University of Missouri, St. Louis Community College, and the Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City on behalf of three students who recently experienced tuition increases that the organization considers illegal.

All three students are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants immunity from deportation to individuals who arrived in the country illegally before the age of 16, but does not confer actual citizenship.

The tuition hikes came after the state passed a bill this summer, HB 3, stating that “no funds shall be expended at public institutions of higher education that offer a tuition rate to any student with an unlawful immigration status in the United States that is less than the tuition rate charged to international students.”

Missouri law already prohibited public colleges and universities from providing institutional financial aid to students who are “unlawfully present in the United States,” but The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that some lawmakers had become concerned that the language would not apply to DACA students, prompting them to propose the new wording in an effort to clarify the law’s meaning.

Despite the misgivings of some administrators, the state’s colleges dutifully complied, sending letters to affected students in July informing them of the mandated tuition increases even as some schools sought to offset the hikes with other forms of financial aid funded by private donations, which the law allows.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, however, offered a conflicting interpretation of the bill upon signing it into law, arguing that the language in question is not legally binding because it occurs in the preamble of the bill, rather than in the body.

“The Governor has been quite clear—in order to change the law, you have to pass legislation,” press secretary Scott Holste told St. Louis Public Radio. “The language in the enacting clause of House Bill 3—or in the enacting clause of any other bill—is not legally binding nor is it enforceable.”

The ACLU seized on that statement, reproducing it verbatim in the lawsuits to bolster its contention that “the preamble language in House Bill 3 does not have a binding—or any—statutory effect,” and is therefore “unenforceable.”

Republican state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, who spearheaded the revised language of HB 3, told Campus Reform that he considers that argument “a stretch,” but said he is content to remain a passive observer at the moment.

“In my opinion, it’s in the bill and the purpose of the appropriation,” he said. “To me … if you’re going to apply a broad restriction, it makes the most sense to do it once in the enacting clause.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out,” he added, “and depending on what the ruling is, we’ll handle that accordingly next year.”

The argument he encounters most often from opponents of the bill, Fitzpatrick noted, is that including the language in the preamble of an appropriations bill was a gimmick intended to overcome a lack of legislative support. Vanessa Crawford-Aragón, executive director of the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates, told St. Louis Public Radio in August, for instance, that “this language was actually put through the budgetary process because they couldn’t pass the bill through the regular legislative process.”

According to Fitzpatrick, though, the truth is more complicated than that.

“There was going to be a filibuster in the Senate over that language,” he explained, but added that “If it were put to a vote, I think there would certainly be a super-majority in both chambers that would support that language.”

He is so confident of the bill’s support, in fact, that he even predicted that “[i]f the court finds that the language being in the preamble is an issue, then it can easily go into the sections of the bill next year.”

The University of Missouri declined to comment for this story because litigation is ongoing, but spokespersons for the other two defendants indicated that they will continue adhering to the legislature’s intent while the legal process plays out.

“Metropolitan Community College is committed to serving students and our community but must do so within the confines of the regulatory parameters provided by state and federal requirements,” MCC Communications and Public Relations Manager Christina Medina told Campus Reform.

Dan Kimack, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at St. Louis Community College, likewise told Campus Reform that “it is important to know that STLCC is not making policy but rather following the language and intent of the law.”

In keeping with the school’s goal of making education accessible to all prospective students, he noted, SLCC is working within the law to address affordability issues arising from HB 3, and “already has earmarked close to a quarter of a million dollars in aid for DACA students facing financial hardship and is working on raising additional funds.”

Fitzpatrick has previously told St. Louis Public Radio that such maneuvers are perfectly legitimate, as the measure’s intent was merely to prevent state tax dollars from being spent on tuition benefits for unlawful immigrant students.

“The budget bill does not prohibit in-state tuition,” he explained. “It just prohibits the dollars that we appropriated from being spent with the university who supplies in-state tuition to those students.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete