When Wendy Ruiz started school at Miami-Dade College, she resigned herself to paying out-of-state tuition despite being born in the U.S. and having lived in Homestead, Fla. her entire life.
The state-sponsored college application requires dependent children to use their parents' tax documents to verify state residency and Ruiz lacked the documents to prove her state residency on her college application because her parents are undocumented immigrants.
Afraid that bringing her case to the school would alert authorities to her parents immigration status, Ruiz worked multiple jobs, struggling to pay a tuition that was three times higher than the in-state tuition she was qualified to receive. She even had to stop her studies to work and save up money to complete her studies.
"Right now, because I'm paying out-of-state tuition, I'm graduating a year and a half to two years later than I was suppose to graduate," Ruiz said.
But after two years of feeling frustrated and wronged, Ruiz and four other students in a similar situation brought their case to U.S. District Courts in Florida.
"I believe that fear cannot be an obstacle in your life," Ruiz said. "I had to face it, I had to say enough is enough."
Last month, Ruiz and the five other students won their case after U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore found the state's policy in violation of equal protection laws in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
"Classifying U.S. citizens students who reside in Florida according to their parents' undocumented federal immigration status does not advance any legitimate State interest," read Judge Moore's ruling. "Much less the State's important interest in furthering educational opportunities for its own residents."
While many states have laws explicitly prohibiting undocumented students access to in-state tuition, only a few states have tried to extended the exclusion to U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants.
Earlier this year a New Jersey state appeals court ruled against state education officials who denied in-state tuition to a U.S. citizen who was the child of undocumented immigrants. And in 2007, state officials in California settled in a similar case, ultimately ending that state's policies denying residency status to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
Florida was the first state in which federal courts stepped in to issue a ruling. Lawyers representing the students say the decision in this case could put an end to these kinds of state laws.
"The judge issued a thorough opinion on why this kind of discrimination violates equal protection," said Tania Galloni, managing attorney for Southern Poverty Law Center's Florida office and one of the attorneys representing Ruiz. "It sends a very clear message to other states that laws like this don't pass constitutional muster."
Lawyers for both parties are still meeting with the judge to determine next steps. Florida state officials say they are considering the courts ruling.
"The decision is under legal review by our lawyers to determine how we're going to proceed," said Kim Wilmath, a spokesperson for the state university system of Florida.
Ruiz's experience is not exceptional. Young immigrants and the children of immigrants face numerous challenges when seeking a college education in the U.S. Some of these barriers are a result of immigration status and some intentional prohibitions put in place by state authorities.
The lengths Ruiz went to continue with her education, however, are exceptional. She hopes that after the ruling, students like her will never have to face a similar situation. She's eager to go back school, this time without having to worry about tuition.
"Winning this case means a lot to me and it means I'll be able to continue my education," Ruiz said. "I really hope that our community and the state supports us because it does have an impact."