Illegal immigrants who call California home will continue to pay reduced, in-state tuition rates to go to college here -- just like other state residents -- after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to review a legal challenge to a politically charged state law.

Without comment, the high court let stand a California Supreme Court ruling in November that unanimously concluded in-state tuition does not run afoul of federal immigration laws restricting public education benefits to illegal immigrants.

In-state tuition is often tens of thousands of dollars less than tuition for those who reside outside the state.

The California policy had been challenged by a group of students from other states who argued that they were being unfairly discriminated against because they pay the higher out-of-state tuition fees and are U.S. citizens. Backers of the lawsuit maintained the law amounts to government encouragement of illegal immigration, and conflicts with federal law restricting public aid to illegal immigrants.

Tuition rates for illegal immigrants has emerged as yet another hot-button issue in the larger immigration debate. And while the U.S. Supreme Court elected not to jump into that aspect of the debate on Monday, the justices have had a steady diet of cases involving illegal immigration, including recently upholding Arizona's law imposing tough penalties on businesses that hire illegal workers.


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The case attracted attention across the country, in large part because at least nine other states have similar laws that were expected to come under legal attack. With the Supreme Court's refusal to step into the debate, those laws will remain intact for now, but critics say there will be further court fights that could return the issue to the nation's high court.

"I think there will be other opportunities," said Michael Brady, a Redwood City lawyer involved in representing the out-of-state students. "No other state is bound by the California Supreme Court (decision)."

There are no firm numbers on how many undocumented students benefit from the state law, but critics estimated that tens of thousands are paying the lower in-state tuition. The difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is significant: Full-time out-of-state students pay four to five times more per year for UC campuses, for example.

A student group that works for racial justice applauded the court's decision. Sergio Cuellar of Californians for Justice said it will help students who have worked hard academically and who, for the most part, have lived in the state nearly all their lives. "It will be a plus for California to have these young people continue on to higher education and careers, and to achieve their dreams."

Officials from California's higher education systems also applauded the ruling, saying it preserves the ability of undocumented students who often attend the state's public high schools to afford college.

"These students deserve to be treated like any other Californian who has been here, worked hard and wants the opportunity to achieve a higher education," said Jack Scott, California's community college chancellor.

Mercury News staff writer Sharon Noguchi contributed to this report. Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.