As he began to apply to colleges last winter, Arlington resident Brian Marroquin knew that his family's up-in-the-air immigration status might require a bit of explaining. Emigrants of Guatemala, they have spent more than a dozen years on the waiting list for interviews that could help grant them permanent asylum in the United States.
When the letters arrived in the spring from five Virginia public institutions, the responses surprised Marroquin:
Virginia Tech and George Mason University accepted him with few questions asked, he said.
Virginia Commonwealth University also welcomed him, but as an international student -- even offering him a ride from the airport.
James Madison University and Christopher Newport University found his academic record worthy of admission, but turned him away, deeming him an illegal immigrant.
It was the first time anyone had called him that, said Marroquin, 18, a Washington-Lee High School graduate who has a Social Security number, a Virginia learner's permit to drive and a work permit that allowed him to intern at the U.S. Department of Energy.
"I didn't know what to make of them," he said of the letters. "It was very confusing."
The conflicting responses are the latest wrinkle -- and perhaps an unforeseen consequence -- in Virginia's two-year debate over whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend public colleges. In February, a federal judge ruled that Virginia colleges have the right to deny admission to illegal immigrants. Now, some colleges are rejecting undocumented immigrants, and others acknowledge that they are turning a blind eye to immigration status in the admissions process.
Advocates for immigrants said hundreds of students such as Marroquin, living legally in Virginia with unresolved asylum petitions, might be getting shut out of higher education as a consequence.
"Immigration law is not as simple as you're here legally, you're not here legally," said Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center. "Schools don't have the legal expertise to determine who is here legally. Why should they be in the business of doing that?"
Marroquin's situation provides plenty of ambiguities. The judge in the federal case found that the teenager's immigration status made him "unlawfully present" in the country, therefore, he could not join a suit against colleges for treating immigrants unfairly.
But a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services noted that someone with the kind of work permit Marroquin has be considered legal by the federal government.
Marroquin's story began in November 1989, when he came to Virginia on a tourist visa with his mother and two older sisters. He was 31/2 years old.
His father, who soon joined them, had left Guatemala a year earlier, fearing that his role in student political protests would draw reprisal. Marroquin said his grandfather and uncle were killed for their political activities.
"My father's life was threatened, and he knew we were going to die if we didn't leave," he said. The family moved in with an uncle and grandmother in Arlington, his father got work as an archives clerk in the District and his mother cleaned houses.
Marroquin came up through the public schools, enrolling in the gifted-student programs and making honor roll. He threw himself into volunteer work and became president of his school's Latin American Student Association.
Meantime, his family had embarked on the lengthy process to make their stay permanent. In 1990, before their visas expired, they applied for political asylum, and though their application remains in that pipeline, they filed a second application in the late 1990s through another process created for immigrants from former communist-bloc countries.
Immigration advocates and a federal spokesman said it is not unusual for applicants to wait so many years in a crowded pipeline for the interviews that could lead to permanent residency.
"They are paying taxes, they are doing everything a legal resident is doing," said Luis Parada, a District-based attorney for Marroquin. "It's not their fault they have to wait 14 years."
By applying to colleges before his family's case was resolved, Marroquin found himself in the midst of a debate about immigrant education. In 2002, the office of Virginia attorney general issued a memo advising public colleges not to enroll illegal immigrants.
The memo drew an outcry from immigrant advocates, who noted that many other states not only are admitting illegal immigrants but also are starting to grant them in-state tuition benefits, under the logic that most were brought to this country as children. The Maryland General Assembly passed a similar tuition measure last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
With the failure of a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of immigrant students, however, Virginia colleges appear to be carving out different responses.
College officials generally would not discuss the specifics of Marroquin's situation, citing confidentiality rules. Spokesmen for James Madison, in Harrisonburg, and Christopher Newport, in Newport News, said their schools followed the advice of Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and do not admit illegal immigrants.
"The federal court said that it was permissible to deny admission [to illegal immigrants] as long as federal standards were followed to determine who is illegal," Thomas R. Shrout of Christopher Newport said.
He added that the judge found Marroquin to be "unlawfully present."
Parada, Marroquin's attorney, said the judge followed a narrow interpretation of immigration statutes and ignored federal memos stating that people with political asylum applications pending can be considered "legally present."
VCU spokeswoman Pamela Lepley said the school does not "knowingly enroll undocumented students." She could not explain why Marroquin received an acceptance letter from the school's office of international students but suggested that it could have stemmed from confusion about his citizenship status.
Admissions directors at Virginia Tech and George Mason said they do not consider a student's immigration or citizenship status.
"It's solely on academic standards," said Mildred Johnson, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. George Mason officials said they decided this year not to tie enrollment to immigration status because they did not think it fit their role as educators.
"The idea that universities would need to develop expertise in the very complex area of immigration law is both problematic and probably unrealistic," said George Mason Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel. "Given the number of students with diverse backgrounds and immigration status, that didn't seem consistent with what we needed to do."
Meanwhile, with his enrollment secured at Virginia Tech, Marroquin has moved on to another battle -- trying to gain in-state tuition privileges. Without permanent residency, the 15-year Arlington resident is considered an out-of-state student and will be charged $16,580 for tuition and fees this year, rather than the $5,858 charged to Virginians.
He is considering whether to challenge in state court Virginia Tech's determination that he is a nonresident. And he is holding out hope that his asylum application might be processed soon.
"It's been so long, but it's so close," he said. "It's frustrating that that amount of time can make or break whether I can pay for college."