By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006
RICHMOND, Feb. 9 -- A senator who wanted to prevent all illegal immigrants in Virginia from getting the residents' tuition break at state universities changed his mind and on Thursday proposed the first legal avenue for some to pay the reduced fee.
Swayed by immigrant advocates and his own experiences, Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta) amended his bill to offer the lower, in-state tuition to undocumented students who are pursuing legal residency, who graduated from a Virginia high school and whose families have paid income taxes for at least three years.
"It's not like they just showed up today," he said of such students. "They've been in the school systems, and they've been good role models. They just lack appropriate documentation. This can be an incentive to help them."
Advocates for immigrants said they were pleased and surprised at the turnabout.
"This is a historic vote," said Luis Parada, a lawyer who works with immigrants. "Regardless of how it turns out, I think it's great that for once we're working for something positive for immigrants in Virginia."
Hanger said he has become convinced that students who graduate from Virginia high schools should not be punished because their parents came to the United States illegally. At the same time, his bill would bar illegal immigrants whose parents have not been paying taxes or who are not actively seeking to become legal from receiving in-state tuition.
"It makes the statement about illegal immigration but in a way that . . . it has a very positive effect for those who want to become U.S. citizens and are going through process," he said.
The senator said his opinions have been shaped by watching his son's fiancee, an immigrant from the Philippines who became a U.S. citizen recently. He said he also has presided at inspiring naturalization ceremonies in the Shenandoah Valley for immigrants becoming citizens. His goal, he said, is to encourage students who arrive as children to pursue legal residency and pay taxes -- offering in-state tuition as a carrot to ensure they do.
"When those immigrants become citizens and the oath of loyalty they take, and what they go through to do that . . . it makes you appreciate the citizenship we enjoy," he said.
In a year when the House of Delegates has passed bills cracking down on illegal immigration, including one that would bar undocumented students from attending public colleges, Hanger's bill would make Virginia only the 10th state to explicitly offer the tuition benefit.
The bill received unanimous and bipartisan support from the Senate's Education and Health Committee, including from several members who previously opposed the idea. Some said they did so because the bill could be a tool to ensure that illegal immigrants who don't qualify will have to pay higher tuition.
"This is absolutely a new prohibition," said Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg). "It's a narrow prohibition, but it's still a new prohibition."
Advocates for immigrants say, however, that Virginia colleges charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition and some do not admit them at all.
House Republicans predicted that Hanger's bill would die quickly in their chamber if it gets out of the Senate.
"Our public colleges and universities are there for documented aliens and legal citizens," said Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr. (R-Hanover), who sponsored the bill to bar illegal immigrants from state college admissions. The bill passed the House by a vote of 67 to 33. "We have to draw a line in dealing with this immigrant problem we have."
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, a lobbyist who represents immigrant groups, said Hanger's shift gives her new optimism about the direction of the debate.
"I certainly did not expect what happened today to happen," she said. "I'm not going to say I couldn't be surprised again."