On a cold October morning, hundreds of high school students from the Central Valley crowded into the Fresno Court of Appeals for "outreach day," an event designed to increase public understanding of the court system. For many of them this wasn't just another field trip. That morning, the California Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments for Martinez v. UC Regents, an effort by anti-immigrant forces to deny undocumented youth access to in-state college tuition rates. I was there with members of the Orange County DREAM Team, sitting behind the defense table in full view of all nine justices, anxiously watching the nation's all-too virulent immigration battle try to claim a new beachhead, that of college campuses.Martinez was gunning for a law that has stood untouched since 2001. Assembly Bill 540 allows students who have attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated from a California high school, or later earned a GED, to pay the same college tuition rate as residents, regardless of immigration status. The anti-immigration group behind Martinez brought suit on behalf of citizens who pay a higher tuition rate because they do not satisfy AB 540’s requirements.

Among the Orange County DREAM Team members with me that day was Vanessa Castillo, an organizer and ally for the cause who understood exactly what was at stake.

"Because I know the stories of my friends and many other students I have met along the way, I know an education would not have been in reach without AB 540," she said. "Undocumented students already struggle to pay in state tuition without any institutional aid. An end to AB 540, would have been an even bigger burden for students already enrolled in colleges, and a bigger barrier for those students who would just be applying to schools for the first time."

Vanessa said she felt both confidence and frustration as the proceeding unfolded. Confidence in the strength of the arguments provided by the defenders of AB 540, but frustration with the misguided information presented by opposing counsel.

"People sitting in the audience were listening to information that was incorrect," she said. Most of the students who have benefited from AB 540 are citizens or lawful permanent residents. It's estimated that about 25,000 undocumented students who reside in California attend the colleges and universities.

The justices peppered both sides with questions during oral arguments, giving neither much of an opportunity to read from prepared remarks. As an attorney I'm used to seeing this process unfold, but for Vanessa, who hopes to begin studying for a master's degree in social work at USC, this was a new world.

"To be sitting directly in front of the justices was an amazing feeling," she said. "I was listening first hand on how they disentangled each argument into what is our constitutional law, seeing how they questioned arguments and how they explained why each argument was fair and unfair."

In the end, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled AB 540 constitutional. It was the right decision. For almost a decade this law has helped ensure that higher education is a viable option for the thousands of undocumented students that graduate from our high schools every year.  Valedictorians, community leaders, future doctors, teachers and scientists will continue to have the opportunity to benefit from in-state tuition in these difficult economic times.

California still has it in it to be the golden state.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from three young people describing their attempts to pursue their DREAM. 

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