Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

Jung Bin Cho, 19, is seen at his job in Annandale, Va., on May 1. Cho will benefit from Virginia's support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Korean student in Virginia joined forces with Latino ‘dreamers’ to fight for in-state tuition

Jung Bin Cho may not look like a typical “dreamer.” Unlike most of his peers, he did not arrive in the U.S. by slipping across the Mexican border illegally.

Asian rather than Latino, he emigrated with his parents from Seoul in 2001 on visas that turned out to be invalid. The family blended easily into Northern Virginia’s enterprising Asian community but never obtained proper immigration papers.

As a result, Cho, 19, grew up in the same legal limbo as hundreds of thousands of young undocumented Latinos whose families fled war and poverty.

Now, as one of 8,100 young illegal immigrants in Virginia who have been granted temporary legal status, the South Korean-born college student is eligible for in-state tuition, thanks to a policy announced Tuesday by the state’s attorney general.

For that, Cho can also credit his own activism, born of frustration.

After graduating from high school in Springfield, where he played football and dreamed of a high-tech career, he was admitted to Virginia Tech. But then Cho hit the same wall as many young Latinos in the Washington region, most of whom are Central American: He was ineligible for reduced tuition at state universities and too poor to afford the full cost of college.

“My dream was to go to Virginia Tech, but I had to turn them down. It was sad,” said Cho, who shares a cramped apartment in Springfield with his father, a gas station attendant; his mother, a beautician; and his younger brother, a high school junior.

The experience led him to join the crusade for legalization and in-state tuition that was dominated by Latino students. In the process, Cho said, he discovered how much history they had in common.

“We shared our stories, and there were a lot of similarities,” Cho added. The Latinos’ tales of being smuggled from Mexico by guides who then cheated them reminded Cho of his own family’s ordeal, in which they paid an overseas broker to obtain U.S. visas and then discovered that the visas were not valid.

As an Asian American, Cho realized that he could help add credibility to a cause often attacked by conservatives as an amnesty for Latino border-crossers.

“The face of immigration reform has been mostly Hispanic,” Cho said. “If I can add another face and a sense of diversity to the issue, it may help people think differently about ‘dreamers’ from an economic perspective, and even a moral one.”

While most Korean Americans are legal immigrants, Cho is not as much of an anomaly as it might seem. Nationally, about one-third of all 11 million illegal immigrants are people who arrived on tourist or work visas and remained after they expired.

Many came from middle class backgrounds, including about 10 percent from Asia. In South Korea, Cho’s father ran a video store and his mother was a physical therapist; they moved to the United States so their sons could obtain a better education.

Among the 500,000 young illegal immigrants who have obtained relief from deportation under a 2012 White House policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the great majority are from Mexico and Central America.

But Koreans are the sixth-largest group of DACA recipients, with more than 7,000 accepted so far. Cho and his brother both applied for, and won, legal status in 2012.

In Virginia, the number of Asian Americans and Hispanics is growing rapidly. Together they constitute about 14 percent of the population and the majority of students in the state’s community college system.

In announcing his finding that “dreamers” are eligible for in-state tuition, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) alluded to the enormous contribution young immigrants can make to Virginia’s economy and culture.

“This is the final piece of the puzzle for DACA recipients,” said Simon Sandoval Moshenberg, a lawyer with a nonprofit agency in Falls Church that sued the state of Virginia seeking in-state tuition benefits for them. “They already had the right to work and drive. This was the piece that was missing for them — to feel that the commonwealth embraced them with all the rights and privileges of Virginians.”

Cho’s involvement in immigration issues grew partly out of his work with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, an advocacy group with an office in Annandale. Formed to encourage Korean immigrants to become more involved in political and civic life, the group recently branched into advocacy for “dreamers” of all ethnic backgrounds.

A potential benefit of such ethnic coalition building, Moshenberg said, is that it may help correct misperceptions among illegal immigrants from other Asian countries, such as India or the Philippines, who may not realize that they, too, are eligible for deportation relief and tuition breaks.

Although DACA was largely a response to growing political pressure from Latino immigrant groups, its benefits are potentially available to anyone younger than 31 who entered the United States illegally before their 16th birthday and has remained here ever since, maintained a clean criminal record and completed high school.

But for Cho, like the great majority of DACA recipients, economic struggles loomed just as large as legal ones. After obtaining legal status, he went to work at a Home Depot and began taking courses several days a week at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. His progress toward a degree was slow, but it was all he could afford.

He also applied for in-state tuition, noting that he had grown up in Virginia and had attended elementary and high school there. He was turned down twice and told that only an act by the state legislature could confer official in-state residence on “dreamers.”

As a result, he had to continue paying more than double the in-state fee of $153.25 per course credit. While some DACA students have been helped by private scholarship programs, they are not eligible for government college loans.

But on Tuesday, with Herring’s announcement, Virginia joined 18 other states in declaring that DACA recipients as legal residents under current state law — and Cho’s dream of attending Virginia Tech suddenly became possible. As an out-of-state student, he said, he would have had to pay nearly $40,000 a year for tuition, board, books and other expenses.

As a Virginia resident, he would pay about half that. For now, he plans to remain at NVCC and reapply to Virginia Tech.

“This means he will be able to graduate years sooner and start to achieve the things his parents never could,” Moshenberg said.

One evening last week, Cho’s mother, Jung Ja Jung, finished a 10-hour shift cutting hair at a salon in Loudoun County and talked about her hopes for his future. She spoke in broken English, but with deep emotion, of her guilt and frustration at not being able to do more to help him achieve his goals. Neither she nor her husband have obtained legal status in the United States.

“My son, my son,” she said, as her eyes filled with tears. “He want to study, I no support, no money. I so sorry, so sorry, my son.”

Asked whether things had changed as a result of Herring’s announcement, she quickly brightened. “My son study more now. I very happy,” she said.