Bilbray takes universities to court over pro-immigrant 'bias'

Former Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) faces two contests this summer; he is trying to win a seat in Congress, and he is hoping to win a class-action lawsuit against California’s higher-education system.

Bilbray will square off June 6 against Democrat Francine Busby in a special election to fill the unexpired term of jailed former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.). Bilbray also is running in the GOP primary to be the party’s nominee in November.

Meanwhile, he and his two college-age children, Briana and Patrick, will head to court in late July as the lead plaintiffs in a suit against California’s university system, charging that students who were forced to pay out-of-state tuition rates were discriminated against because undocumented immigrants who met residency requirements were eligible for in-state tuition rates. 

The Bilbrays filed the suit last December in Yolo County Superior Court in Northern California.

Bilbray said he sued as a matter of principle because California’s university system violated a part of the 1996 welfare-reform law that he helped write.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 prohibits states from giving college benefits to illegal immigrants unless U.S. citizens and legal immigrants are eligible for such benefits, such as in-state tuition, as well.

But as with any legal proceeding in a campaign season, the suit is steeped in politics. Not only does it touch on the hot-button issue of immigration, but Democrats are using the lawsuit to tar Bilbray as a carpetbagger. 

This month, the San Diego Minutemen, a group that patrols the border to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, endorsed William Griffith, the independent candidate running against Busby and Bilbray in June.

The race between Bilbray and Busby has become a test of wills for both parties. Republicans, especially, are sparing no expense because a loss could be the catalyst for a Democratic triumph in November. Top Republicans said they have been forced to spend $2.5 million on the race so far to motivate voters in a special election and in a primary where there is no competitive statewide GOP race.

Democrats also are spending significant resources to score an upset in a heavily Republican district. While letting more conservative Republican candidates beat up on Bilbray for his more centrist stances on gun control and other social issues, Democrats said last week that the lawsuit and Bilbray’s property records “raise serious questions of perjury and voter fraud.”

Bilbray owns homes in Virginia and in Imperial Beach, Calif., which is not located within the 50th Congressional District. But in 2005 he claimed his mother’s house in Carlsbad, Calif., as his principal residence. Carlsbad is in the 50th District, but he is not required to live in the district to run for the seat.

Democrats base their allegations on federal disclosure forms Bilbray, a lobbyist, filed with the House. In February, he listed his Imperial Beach address as his principal residence. But on his personal financial disclosure, he listed the Carlsbad address.

“Since Brian Bilbray can’t even seem to be straight with the federal government about where he lives, it comes as little surprise that he can’t be straight with San Diego families about it either,” said Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Asked to explain the discrepancy, Bilbray’s aide told The Hill that Bilbray’s wife, an accountant, prepared his lobbying disclosure forms and simply used the same template from one year to the next and that there was nothing nefarious about listing the different addresses.

Bilbray said his principal residence is his mother’s house in Carlsbad; he moved there in 2005 to care for his injured mother, a campaign spokesman said. When Bilbray registered to vote in June 2005, he listed the Carlsbad location as his principal address, and his driver’s license claims Carlsbad a his principal residence.

“The Democrats are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. This is an act of desperation,” said Steve Danon, Bilbray’s spokesman.

But Democrats argue that if Bilbray were a California resident, the California university system would not be charging his children out-of-state tuition.

After Bilbray lost his congressional seat in 2000 he worked as a lobbyist, traveling between his Virginia home and California. His children remained in Virginia to finish high school.

Upon their acceptance to college, the schools asked Bilbray to produce a tax return to demonstrate California residency.

“They asked me that I show them my personal tax return when others did not have to file it,” Bilbray said, referring to illegal immigrants, who only have to produce a driver’s license or a utility bill. “They don’t have the right to ask me.”

Bilbray agreed that he could have avoided the suit if he had shared his tax returns with the university, but he declined to do that even though he has shared his tax returns with local reporters.

“My kids have been paying two years at out-of-state” tuition rate, he said. “They continue to drag this on. My daughter has maintained California residency, has voted in California, has registered her car there and they’re still jacking her up on this.”

The first hearing in the case had been scheduled for today, but the judge postponed the proceedings until late July, said the plaintiff’s lawyers, Michael Brady, an attorney in the Redwood City office of Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, and Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and a GOP congressional candidate in 2004. Kobach lost to Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.).

The lawyers said they hope a jury would award them the difference in price between in-state and out-of-state tuition for the class of students suing. They also invoked a California law that awards triple damages to citizens whose civil rights have been violated.

Patrick Bilbray attends San Diego City College, which charges $160 per unit for out-of-state students, according to the school’s website. In-state tuition costs just $26 per unit. Briana Bilbray pays the same tuition at San Diego Mesa College.