REBECA ORELLANA grew up in Arlington, graduated with high honors from Washington-Lee High School and now studies civil engineering as a freshman at George Mason University in Fairfax. Yet under Virginia’s senseless and self-defeating laws, she remains an outsider, ineligible for state resident status and struggling to pay annual tuition of $28,592 — three times more than the $9,908 her high school classmates pay.
Ms. Orellana’s sin was to have been born in Bolivia and brought to America at age 5 by her parents, who are undocumented immigrants. Even though Ms. Orellana has permission to stay in the United States under a reprieve granted by the Obama administration to immigrants who came to this country as children, Virginia has made no allowances for her. She is, for all intents and purposes, an American, and an exceptionally promising one at that. Yet Virginia treats her as an alien. The University of Virginia would not even have allowed her to enroll.
The state’s policy is absurd. Ms. Orellana and several thousand youngsters like her grew up in Virginia, speak English and consider themselves American. When they finish their studies, they may apply for jobs and work here legally. It is in the state’s interest to help them afford college and realize their potential.
In the state legislature this year, a bill to provide tuition benefits to such students — billing them at the same rate other Virginians are billed — died after clearing the House of Delegates Education Committee with bipartisan backing. A similar measure will be offered by both Republicans and Democrats when the General Assembly convenes again next month. It deserves to become law.
Some states have granted tuition subsidies to undocumented students regardless of their status, but Virginia is considering a more focused approach. It would apply only to youngsters who are authorized to stay in the United States under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivalsprogram, which exempts them from deportation and allows them to work legally.
About 9,000 Virginia residents have applied for that status; most have received it or will. (Eligibility is finite since applicants must have arrived in America by their 16th birthday and lived here continuously since June 2007.) Of that number, just a few thousand may have the drive and aptitude to attend college. But few will be able to afford it unless they are eligible for in-state tuition.
Top Virginia Republicans, including Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, have advocated giving foreign-born youngsters — the so-called Dreamers brought here as children— a path to citizenship. A Republican state lawmaker from Fairfax, Thomas Davis Rust, was chief patron of the bill in Richmond this year to help non-deportable kids attend college if they have graduated from a Virginia high school and their parents have paid state income taxes for at least three years.
But other Virginia Republicans stand in the way of the bill becoming law. In doing so, they also are impeding opportunity and success for genuinely promising youngsters. Just ask Rebeca Orellana.
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