The University of Uncertainty

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

When Nelson Lopez applied to Virginia colleges this year, it never occurred to him that he might not be considered a state resident. After all, he has lived in the state since he was a baby, holds a voter registration card and will graduate this spring from an Alexandria high school.

Then last month, he got an e-mail from the University of Virginia: If he wanted to be considered an in-state student, he had to prove that his parents are in this country legally.

Lopez, 18, was born here -- he's a U.S. citizen. But his parents are illegal immigrants.

In the years since a huge wave of immigrants began pouring into the country, their U.S.-born children are graduating from high school and finding that citizenship may not be enough.

Last week, the Virginia state attorney general's office weighed in, saying that schools must look at parents' legal status, because students are considered dependent until they are 24 years old. That means the children of parents without legal residency must be considered for out-of-state admission and tuition.

The attorney general's memo emphasized that state law allows exceptions on a case-by-case basis, if students 18 or older can offer convincing evidence that they should be considered separately from their parents.

That gives students such as Lopez a chance -- and leaves them in limbo.

He says his family, five people squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment, could never afford out-of-state rates. That's why he applied only to state schools in Virginia. It's far more difficult for out-of-state students to get into public universities.

"This is an amazing kid," said Krishna Leyva, director of a mentoring program at T.C. Williams High School. His neighborhood has gangs and drugs, but he takes tough classes, copy-edits the school paper and spends many days volunteering after school, tutoring other students. "He does so many good things, yet he keeps his [grade-point average] so high. And he was born here -- his dad pays taxes. I was really shocked."

What to do about illegal immigration has flared up in the presidential campaign, in state legislative chambers, on street corners. It gets to the heart of how people define this country, its promise, its opportunities, its loyalties and its obligations.

"Let's take care of our own people," said Brad Botwin, who runs an advocacy group called Help Save Maryland and testified recently at a hearing on a Maryland bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who meet certain residency and tax requirements. It's more competitive than ever to get into state colleges, he said, and more expensive. "Why would you give priority to someone who should rightly be arrested and deported?"

But students have the right to a public education through 12th grade in this country, advocates argue.

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