A new directive from the Virginia attorney general's office that warns public colleges not to enroll illegal immigrants has placed the state squarely at odds with a national trend toward offering undocumented students greater access to higher education.

The September memo by Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), which also instructs Virginia's colleges to report to federal authorities any illegal immigrants they find on campus, drew fire yesterday from Latino and immigrant rights organizations.

At a news conference in Arlington, the groups said Kilgore's action unfairly penalizes foreign-born children for their parents' decision to come to the United States illegally and goes beyond any federal or state law by asking educators to act as police -- potentially in violation of confidentiality policies.

Kilgore staff members countered by saying they are concerned that illegal immigrants could be taking seats at state schools that would otherwise go to U.S. citizens. They also said that since last year's terrorist attacks, all universities carry a greater responsibility to help the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service monitor foreign students.

"This is about differentiating between those who obey the law and those who willfully break it," said the attorney general's spokesman, Tim Murtaugh.

Virginia's move comes as many states are taking a dramatically different approach, not only allowing illegal immigrants to enroll in public colleges but granting them in-state tuition.

California, Texas and New York have passed laws to that effect in the last two years. Similar measures are either pending or being drafted in Maryland, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Utah.

And several bills in Congress, including one introduced by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would encourage other states to follow suit.

There is no specific federal prohibition against colleges and universities enrolling illegal immigrants. However, federal law places some restrictions on allowing such students to pay in-state tuition rates, and it prohibits them from receiving federal financial aid.

Efforts to open public colleges to undocumented students stem from a growing view among some lawmakers -- vehemently rejected by others -- that excluding the nation's estimated 8 million illegal immigrants from benefits such as health care and higher education only threatens the safety and economic well-being of the communities in which they live.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that approach has been offset by a competing impulse among many state and federal authorities to curtail illegal immigration.

Among other actions, more than a dozen states have cracked down on driver's license fraud, requiring applicants to provide more extensive proof of their identity and legal residency before issuing licenses.

Immigrant rights advocates contend that such steps merely victimize otherwise law-abiding drivers and endanger the public by preventing them from getting auto insurance.

Yesterday, critics offered similar arguments against Kilgore's directive.

Virginia's undocumented students "are the epitome of what we consider the American Dream," said Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which organized the news conference. "They've gone to high school here, they're hardworking and high-achieving."

In Maryland, Prince George's Community College President Ronald A. Williams has also argued that local communities have as much to gain from illegal immigrants attending college as the immigrants themselves. "They are going to need skills to become taxpayers who are not a burden on society," he said.

However, Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, countered that expanding college benefits to illegal immigrants encourages more people to come to the United States illegally.

"It conveys to the world the message that America just isn't serious about its immigration laws," he said. "It's also a slap in the face to the people who play by the rules by waiting for their turn to immigrate in their home countries."

Immigrant rights advocates estimate that about 50,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year. It is unclear how many go on to college. Although many college applications ask students if they are legal residents, the institutions rarely do background checks unless they are verifying a student's eligibility for federal assistance or in-state tuition.

Several higher education officials and immigration experts said there are few illegal immigrants at U.S. colleges. "Most of these kids face huge barriers in terms of language and their parents' lack of education, and their ability to afford out-of state tuition," said Josh Bernstein, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center.

Williams, of Prince George's Community College, said that every year a couple of hundred illegal immigrants come to register at the school's northern county office, which serves an area dominated by immigrants. But they walk out the door when they find out they will have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is three times as high as the in-county rate.

Many advocates also fear that Kilgore's directive will mainly end up affecting students who are legal immigrants, subjecting them to undue scrutiny and possibly even racial profiling.

Authorities at Virginia's public universities said that they believe they have been in compliance with state and federal law and that the Kilgore memo has not changed the way they deal with students.

Bill Walker, a spokesman for the College of William and Mary, said the memo would serve as "a reminder for us to maintain our standards."