Two Texas veterans are challenging a state policy barring them from receiving college tuition waivers because they were legal residents but not yet U.S. citizens when they entered the service.
Attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund announced the federal lawsuit Thursday in San Antonio. The Latino advocacy group is suing on behalf of Raul Dominguez and Naser Alzer, two honorably discharged veterans who served in the Gulf War and have since become U.S. citizens, and the American GI Forum of Texas, a veterans advocacy group.
The case focuses on the veterans’ exclusion from the Texas Hazlewood Act, a benefit that exempts those who were legal residents of Texas at the time they entered the military from paying tuition and some fees at state colleges. Nearly 9,000 veterans benefitted from the Hazlewood exemption in fiscal year 2005, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“Our clients simply want to enjoy the same benefits received by native-born Texas veterans,” said Carlos Becerra, a MALDEF staff attorney. “After having honorably served their country in the military, it is only fair that veterans who entered the military as legal permanent residents be afforded the same educational opportunities as those veterans who entered the military as citizens.”
Both plaintiffs are college graduates who have exhausted the money from their GI bill. Dominguez, of Amarillo, wants to obtain a master’s degree in education from West Texas A&M in Canyon. Alzer, of Austin, wants to seek a Ph.D. in finance from the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Typically, someone in their position could depend on the Hazlewood Act to continue their education. But the application for the Hazlewood waiver asks whether the applicant was a U.S. citizen upon entering the military. If the answer is no, the application instructs the person not to continue the process, Becerra said.
“This deters many veterans who otherwise would have applied for the Hazlewood exemption,” he said.
Before 2006, Texas public colleges and universities gave the Hazlewood benefit to all qualifying veterans regardless of whether they were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents when they entered the military.
The change came from an August 2005 attorney general’s opinion saying the Hazlewood Act phrase “citizen of Texas” should be interpreted as a person who lives in the state and is a U.S. citizen.
The state Attorney General’s Office said it had not been served with the lawsuit and had no comment. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board also said it had not seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat, authored legislation to remove the U.S. citizenship requirement but it was not approved during the last session The change would have brought Texas back in line with the federal goverment, which doesn’t make distinctions between citizens and legal residents on educational benefits for veterans, Van de Putte said.
“I would like the people who make these policies to really… see who is sacrificing over there in Afghanistan and Iraq,” she said.
Only people with legal status can join the U.S. military. About 40,000 members of the U.S. military are eligible to apply for naturalization. Some 6,000 to 7,500 service members have become U.S. citizens in the last two years, with many being naturalized while serving on active duty outside the country, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
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