Topeka Attorneys verbally sparred before a federal judge Tuesday over a state law that allows certain illegal immigrants to pay the less expensive in-state tuition at Kansas public colleges.
Michelle Prahl, a senior political science student at Kansas University, is one of a group of students and their parents challenging the law.
"The state has a weak case," Prahl, a native of Bella Vista, Ark., said during a break in the arguments. "It's unfair for the state to determine one set of hardships is more deserving than another."
But attorneys for the state and Hispanic organizations said the law was fair because it allowed immigrants, some of whom were brought to the United States as infants and have lived in Kansas for many years, access to a college education.
Peter Roos, an attorney representing the League of United Latin American Citizens and Hispanic American Leadership Organization, said if the law is declared invalid, "It's almost a knee-capping, a destruction of the life chances of these kids."
The dispute is before U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Rogers, who is expected to issue a decision in the next couple of weeks.
The law was intended to help students such as the anonymous A. Doe, described in court documents as a freshman at KU who came to Kansas from Mexico with her family when they were pursuing work.
She enrolled in Shawnee Mission schools in 2000, graduated with a 3.75 grade point average and became a member of the National Honor Society.
She and other students who take advantage of the law, passed in 2004, have no legal immigration status but sign an affidavit that they will try to become a legal U.S. citizen as soon as possible.
The Kansas law provides that students who attend Kansas high school for three years and graduated or earned a general education development certificate in Kansas may receive residential status for in-state tuition. At KU, the in-state tuition for 15 hours of undergraduate classes costs about $2,000 per semester as compared with more than $5,000 for non-Kansas residents.
Thirty students at regents universities and community colleges have benefited from the law since it became effective in July 2004, officials said. A school-by-school breakdown of the number of students was not available.
Kris Kobach, an attorney, law professor and unsuccessful Republican candidate for the 3rd congressional district, which represents eastern Lawrence, told the judge that the state law was illegal because it skirted federal immigration law.
"To receive benefits under the law, the individual must be in violation of federal immigration law," Kobach said.
And he said the law set up "hurdles" to U.S. citizens seeking in-state tuition.
But Mike Delaney, an Overland Park attorney representing the state, said the law was written in a way to apply the same in-state tuition standards to everyone, regardless of whether they are a citizen.
Eight other states, including Oklahoma and Texas, have similar laws.
Several students from Kansas State and Emporia State universities also are challenging the law.