Born and living in South Carolina, some college-bound students are being charged out-of-state tuition based on their parents’ immigration status, a practice that some civil rights groups say is illegal.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is taking note of how often U.S.-born students with undocumented parents are being charged, in some cases triple the tuition rate at South Carolina colleges and universities. It could lead to legal trouble for the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, which oversees higher education in the Palmetto State.

“I think it’s preliminary to say, but it’s definitely our understanding that this is widespread,” said Sam Brooke, a senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he stands by the state’s policy. Grooms, who sponsored a major immigration-reform bill two years ago, said the tuition issue comes down to fairness.

“I think the policy should be the same if your parents are from Texas or from Mexico,” he said. If the policy were to be changed, it would favor students with parents who are illegal, “because parents from another state wouldn’t benefit from in-state tuition in South Carolina.”

A similar policy already has been challenged in Florida, where the Southern Poverty Law Center last year filed suit against the agencies that oversee higher education there. The center won the case when a judge blocked the Sunshine State’s tuition policy that forced U.S. citizens to pay out-of-state tuition because they were unable to prove their parents’ federal immigration status.

Southern Poverty Law Center officials wouldn’t say if they plan to file suit in South Carolina, but Brooke said the state should “read the tea leaves” in regards to what happened in Florida.

“We hope South Caroling will do the right thing. If they don’t do the right thing, litigation might be necessary,” Brooke said. “Whether that will happen, I can’t say. We hope that would never be necessary.”

Julie Carullo, spokeswoman for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said residency decisions are the responsibility of the schools based on “facts presented in each situation” and following state laws and regulations. She said students also have the option of appealing, where they can provide additional information for consideration.

Brooke said the Southern Poverty Law Center has assisted four students involving five universities in South Carolina, including the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston, in the last two years to appeal the out-of-state tuition rates imposed.

The University of South Carolina did not respond to a request for comment. A College of Charleston representative said the school follows the commission’s residency policies.

Brooke said the center has reached out to the commission, and that placing the responsibility on the schools for the residency policy is “ludicrous.”

“While it’s true the schools make the ultimate decisions regarding applicants, it’s the commission’s job to enforce the rules. So for them to try to wash their hands of this is disingenuous.”

Florida’s foul

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit in Florida in October 2011 against the two agencies overseeing higher education, the Florida Department of Education and the Board of Governors, as well as several colleges in the state.

The center claimed the agencies and schools were using a discriminatory practice.

A year later a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued an order ruling that the policy was unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. The order blocked the policy and forced the agencies to notify the schools and students about the change.

Julie Alexander, the vice chancellor of academic and student affairs of the Florida Department of Education, which oversees the state’s colleges, said dependents’ parents would still have to prove residency in Florida, but no longer would use their immigration status as criteria.

“I think that it kind of alleviated some of the process implications for the colleges. Now they’re not having to go that extra initial step to verify legal status,” Alexander said. “So, from a process perspective, it made it a little easier.”

Alexander said the colleges didn’t see a huge influx of students in this particular scenario entering the college system following the change. Some students already enrolled in college did get the opportunity to be reclassified, she said.

Brittany Davis, spokeswoman for the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s university system, said last year that very few students responded to the notice that the universities sent out, and fewer than 20 students were reclassified as in-state residents under the new parameters.

Commission’s say

The S.C. Commission on Higher Education’s regulations are under review, including the residency provisions, according to its spokeswoman, Carullo.

She said any revisions that result from the review would be submitted in early 2015 to the state Legislature.

Carullo said there are differences and similarities between South Carolina’s and Florida’s residency statutes.

“We are working to clarify issues such as those raised by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Florida case you have referenced concerning provisions affecting U.S. citizens who are dependents of undocumented parents or guardians,” Carullo said. “We have initiated conversation with the Southern Poverty Law Center to more clearly identify their concern.”

Costly difference

The students who can’t prove their parents’ federal immigration status are facing a major difference in their tuition rates, Brooke said.

At the University of South Carolina, the out-of-state annual tuition is $17,670 higher than the in-state tuition rate. The College of Charleston’s out-of-state tuition is $16,464 higher than the in-state tuition rate. For a Trident Technical College student taking 12 to 15 credits, it would cost $1,695 more than residents of Charleston, Berkeley or Dorchester counties.

The Post and Courier spoke to one Lowcountry high school student, who did not want to be identified out of fear that her parents could be deported, who said she was told by Trident Tech that she would be charged out-of-state tuition because she couldn’t prove her parents’ federal immigration status.

She said her parents are undocumented and have lived in the United States for the past 20 years, and the student is a U.S. citizen.

Representatives from Trident Tech, like the College of Charleston, said they follow the residency-requirement policy of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

But, in most of the instances in which the center has become involved in assisting the students on the appeals, Brooke said the schools found ways to reverse the initial charge.

“Whenever they become aware we’re working on the outskirts, all of a sudden things get fixed,” he said.

Trident Tech spokesman David Hansen said in some instances the school can consider options in circumstance and documentation.

“That is where we exercise judgment in determining whether the student has met the requirements of the regulations. Policy allows students to appeal,” Hansen said.

But Brooke said not all students seek his organization’s help in appealing those initial determinations. “How many of these students were told, ‘You’re not eligible for this’? How many have the gumption to say. ‘I don’t believe you and I want this to be reviewed by someone else.’ That’s a tall order for 18-year-olds,” he said.

State scholarships

The South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, based in Columbia, has been working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to investigate the cases in South Carolina.

Staff Attorney Tammy Besherse said the agency has received several calls from students facing higher tuition costs because their parents are undocumented residents.

“All of them were born in the state, raised in the state and never lived anywhere else. Yet they’re being told they’re out-of-state residents,” Besherse said. “I’d like to know where they are residents of.”

Besherse said schools in the state are treating U.S. born youths as “second-class citizens.”

It’s not only about tuition, according to Brooke and Besherse. Some U.S.-born students are also being denied state scholarships based on their parents’ immigration status.

The Post and Courier spoke to another student, who also did not want to be identified out of fear her parents could be deported, said she was ruled ineligible for the state’s Life Scholarship, based on her parents’ immigration status.

The student is a U.S. citizen, but her parents are undocumented residents. She said it was disconcerting because she was the first person in her family to attend college.

She attended Charleston Southern University for a semester, but wasn’t told about the scholarship ineligibility until December, according to the student.

Brooke said CSU stepped in, though, and gave the student the amount equivalent to the scholarship money she lost.

‘The disadvantaged’

At West Ashley High School, five to 10 students a year have been faced with the decision to appeal a university’s or college’s initial ruling to charge out-of-state tuition because of their parents’ status, Principal Mary Runyon said.

“A majority of them are not emotionally prepared to fight the battle,” Runyon said.

Others are afraid of fighting the schools because they don’t want to bring unnecessary attention to themselves or their parents, who could be deported.

So Runyon said many of them look for other options outside of school, like finding technical jobs or work in the fast-food industry, wherever they can earn a living.

Grooms said that is a consequence of their own parents’ actions.

“The children of parents who violate the law are often disadvantaged, and the children of parents who break immigration laws are disadvantaged,” Grooms said.

Grooms helped push through immigration-reform legislation in 2011 that not only required proof of citizenship for employment in South Carolina, but also called for giving law enforcement the power to demand proof of citizenship during traffic stops. That part of the law remains in legal limbo after a federal judge temporarily halted the provision.

Grooms said students with undocumented parents have other options, such as emancipating from their parents or becoming dependants, then claiming residency themselves for in-state tuition.

“That’s what students whose parents live in other states have to do,” he said.

He said the policy is an unfair advantage for parents who are in the state and country illegally, and if the courts force the state to change the policy, he vows to “do everything in my power that those living legally in the United States aren’t put at a disadvantage.”

But Runyon said the students dealing with these roadblocks are unfairly disadvantaged.

“You can kind of begin to see where the education system is truly on the horns of a dilemma. We’re not able to help them fulfill their potential,” Runyon said. “A segment of our population is being deprived of a post-secondary education. I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree with that opinion.”

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594.