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Immigrants who challenged in-state tuition policy win case
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Some students at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus celebrated Tuesday after a judge ruled the Georgia university system must allow immigrants to receive in-state tuition if they’ve been granted temporary permission by the federal government to stay in the U.S.

“Words can't express the joy I have in my heart with the news,” said Diana Paola Vela-Martinez, a pre-med student at UNG who came to the United States from Mexico at age 4. “It's a dream come true for myself and many other students who have lived through the struggles of not knowing if they will be able to continue in higher education.”

Georgia’s state colleges and universities require verification of “lawful presence” in the U.S. for in-state tuition. The Board of Regents had said students with temporary permission to stay thanks to a 2012 program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals didn’t meet that requirement.

A lawyer for 10 young immigrants who meet all the other requirements and who have been granted deferred action status argued in a petition filed in April that the federal Department of Homeland Security has said people who have qualified for the program are “lawfully present.”

Lawyers for the university system rejected that argument, saying the statement about lawful presence appeared in an FAQ section of the department’s website and not as an official policy or regulation.

But Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan said that while an official policy would be helpful, the fact it is part of the department’s official website means it should be taken as an accurate statement of the federal government’s position.

The judge found, therefore, that the Regents have refused to accept the “federally established lawful presence” of the students who filed the petition and many others who find themselves in a similar situation.

“Such refusal of a faithful performance of their duties is unreasonable and creates a defect of legal justice that has already negatively impacted thousands of Georgia students,” she wrote.

Javier Gonzalez, like Vela-Martinez, can live, work and study here without fear of deportation thanks to DACA.

He was 2 years old when his family came to the U.S.

“It’s the only country I’ve ever known,” he said.

Gonzalez, who is studying political science and economics at UNG, said receiving in-state tuition will relieve a huge financial burden from his family’s shoulders and help him meet his goal of fulfilling his parents’ dream.

“The risk they took wasn’t for nothing,” Gonzalez said, adding that his mother and father have always stressed the importance of education.

“Education takes you places,” Gonzalez said. “The golden ticket to a better life.”

University system spokesman Charles Sutlive had no immediate comment on Tuesday. The state attorney general’s office, which represented the university system, is reviewing the court order and exploring options, spokeswoman Katelyn McCreary said in an email.

Charles Kuck, the lawyer for the students, said he was pleased by the ruling, though he acknowledged it’s not clear what it will mean for these students after Donald Trump is sworn in as president later this month.

“We really don’t know what this means long term, but I know that today these kids can pay in-state tuition, something that should have happened four years ago,” Kuck said in a phone interview.

Gonzalez said in-state tuition will help DACA students “chase our dreams much faster.”

For example, because of the higher costs associated with out-of-state tuition, Vela-Martinez has had to limit the number of classes she can take each semester, which in turn pushes off her graduation date.

A single credit for the spring 2017 semester at UNG (for a student on a bachelor’s degree track) costs $178.40 for in-state recipients, but $629.80 for out-of-state students.

“I am very blessed to know I will now be able to be a full-time student and graduate sooner than expected,” Vela-Martinez said. “This victory isn’t just for me or for the students, but also for the parents who have given their full love and support.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.