Class-action lawsuit claims public colleges discriminate against children of undocumented immigrants

Although he’s lived in South Carolina for 10 years, Stratford High graduate Antonio Rojas Rodriguez will have to pay out-of-state tuition at the College of Charleston due to his mother’s immigration status.

When 19-year-old Antonio Rojas Rodriguez received his acceptance letter from the College of Charleston this spring, he was elated.

He had fallen in love with the campus during two overnight visits his junior and senior year. An aspiring entrepreneur, he planned to study business and economics so that one day he could open his own authentic Mexican restaurant.

But Rojas Rodriguez, who graduated from Stratford High School in Goose Creek last Saturday, may be forced to put his dreams on hold. A month after he received his acceptance letter, the college informed him he would be classified as an out-of-state student because his mother is undocumented. That means Rojas Rodriguez, who was born in Mississippi, won’t be eligible for in-state tuition or state-administered academic scholarships and grants. And that means he won’t be able to afford to pay for college.

“I just assumed,” he said. “I just thought I’d been living here for 10 years. I have a driver’s license. This is home. This is my state. All my family, friends are here. I had no idea that something like this existed.”

Rojas Rodriguez is one of three named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in Charleston’s U.S. District court, alleging that South Carolina discriminates against its college-bound students who are U.S. citizens but unable to prove their parents’ legal immigration status.

Filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, the suit names each of the 14 board members of the Commission on Higher Education as defendants, in addition to the commission’s interim executive director Julie Carullo, College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell and Trident Technical College President Mary Thornley.

Although no state law explicitly precludes children who are U.S. citizens, but whose parents are undocumented from receiving in-state tuition or state-administered scholarships, dependent students are classified based on their parents’ residency. As a result, public colleges and the Commission on Higher Education, which sets regulations for in-state tuition and scholarship eligibility, have adopted policies that define these students as non-residents. These policies, attorneys argue, violate their clients’ rights to equal protection under the Constitution.

“It essentially puts college out of reach for our clients and for other students in similar positions by doubling or in some cases, nearly tripling the cost of attendance,” said Michelle Lapointe, senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The annual cost of tuition at the College of Charleston is $10,558 for residents and $27,548 for nonresidents. At Trident Tech, tuition for a semester during the 2014-15 academic year was $2,170 for South Carolina residents; $1,956 for residents of Charleston, Berkeley or Dorchester counties; and $3,702 for out-of-state students.

McConnell declined through a spokesman to discuss any pending litigation. When asked about the suit by The Post and Courier, Commission on Higher Education chairman John Finan said he hadn’t been notified about it and couldn’t comment.

“We are an ‘open door’ institution, committed to serving all of the residents of our three-county service area in every way possible,” said Thornley in a statement provided to The Post and Courier. “Also, we are a public institution that must fully comply with state law and regulations. While we would like to accept all students and assist them in receiving financial aid, we must comply with state law and regulations.”

According to the lawsuit, an estimated 170 South Carolina students, who are U.S. citizens, but whose parents are undocumented, are expected to pursue higher education in the state each year. About 140 of these students are expected to enroll in the state’s public colleges and universities.

“What are we saying to our bright college students? We don’t want you to be educated? We don’t want you to contribute financially to our state through having higher education and higher job skills?” said Tammy Besherse, a staff attorney at South Carolina Appleseed. “You’re punishing these college students for something they cannot control.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.