The 19-year-old cannot afford the out-of-state tuition of $29,000 a year Virginia charges people with her immigration status, so she and six other students filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Arlington County Circuit Court arguing that they should be able to pay the same lower rates as other longtime Virginia residents.
The lawsuit marks the latest flash point in a heated national debate over whether to grant the benefit to children brought here illegally. Maryland became one of at least 17 states to do so last year after vigorous opposition forced a referendum on a plan to grant in-state tuition discounts to undocumented college students. The issue is also the subject of litigation in Georgia and Arizona.
The lawsuit against the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), which sets policy for public colleges, could determine whether hundreds — even thousands — of students like Rojas attend college in the commonwealth and, if they do, how much debt they incur and how long it takes them to finish.
In-state tuition for Rojas at George Mason would be $9,900 — a third of the out-of-state rate.
“I always believed if you worked hard and got good grades, you could go to college,” Rojas said. “We are just like anyone else. We have been living in the United States for a long time.”
Specifically, the suit seeks in-state tuition rates at public colleges for those in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created after the DREAM Act failed in Congress.
DACA allows those who were brought here illegally as children to avoid deportation if they are enrolled in school, have a clean record and meet other criteria. They can also get Social Security numbers, apply for driver’s licenses in some states and have the right to work. It does not provide a path to citizenship and must be renewed every two years.
More than 7,000 young people had been granted DACA status in Virginia through the end of August, according to the suit, filed on behalf of the students by the Legal Aid Justice Center, based in Virginia. The plaintiffs argue that DACA is the equivalent of other immigration statuses that qualify for in-state tuition in Virginia.
SCHEV officials said their attorneys have told them otherwise, and school officials have written to students saying that such a plan would require the approval of the General Assembly.
“DACA is not a legal status,” said Lee Andes, assistant director for financial aid for SCHEV. “All it does is defer action.”
Bills that would have granted DACA students in-state tuition failed in the Virginia legislature this year, but similar efforts are expected to be taken up again in the next session.
A legislative analyst did not estimate the measure’s financial impact on schools, saying the number of undocumented students enrolled in Virginia colleges was unknown. But the analyst said schools might offset any potential financial losses by enrolling more out-of-state students.
Proponents argue that helping this group of young people attend college is the pragmatic course. Many have no plans to leave the United States and consider this country their home.
“By getting educations, they are much more likely to get integrated in the state, make money, pay taxes and buy houses,” said Jennifer Riddle, an advocacy attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “Do we want to integrate them or create a second class?”
Opponents argue that educational resources — especially in difficult financial times — should be devoted to citizens and legal immigrants.
“It’s absurd that illegal aliens could go into court and force a state agency to recognize them as legal residents,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “It undermines the rule of law and provides a subsidy for students who are here illegally. Most taxpayers object to that.”
Rojas’s history is typical of many DACA recipients’. Her parents brought her to the United States as a 13-year-old. She and her 7-year-old sister were stopped at the border and detained, but they were eventually released and joined their parents in Northern Virginia.
Even though deportation proceedings against them began immediately, her parents enrolled her at Falls Church High School.
Rojas, who spoke only Spanish, said that simple homework assignments would take her hours and that she would stay up nights studying, but she was determined. She and her father would sing songs by the Beatles and Chicago in the car to practice English.
By 11th grade, she was in English honors classes. She tutored other immigrants in the language and helped them prepare for the citizenship test at the Arlington Boulevard Community Development Organization (ABCD).
In 12th grade, she approached a school counselor to discuss college options. Until then, she had carefully kept the secret of her illegal status from everyone.
“He told me, ‘There’s nothing you can do. Students like you don’t go to college,’ ” Rojas recalled.
She said the encounter spurred her to action. She began networking with other undocumented students in college and got her DACA status, which staved off deportation proceedings.
She applied for 30 scholarships to get money to attend Northern Virginia Community College, since federal loans are not available to undocumented students. Still, she pays $322 per credit hour, more than double the in-state rate.
Despite the hard work, Rojas’s grip on her dream remains tenuous. Robbie Snow, the community coordinator at ABCD, said it would be a shame if Rojas did not attend George Mason.
“You don’t want someone like her flipping burgers in McDonald’s,” Snow said. “You want her working for the betterment of the state.”