Two lawmakers from Loudoun County are pushing back on the extension of in-state tuition at Virginia’s public universities for undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
Legislation filed in advance of the 2015 General Assembly session would explicitly bar any resident granted temporary legal status from paying in-state tuition. The bills challenge a recent directive from Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) that said young immigrants granted legal status under a 2012 presidential initiative could apply for in-state rates. The status has been approved for more than 9,000 such residents.
Del. David I. Ramadan, a Republican from Loudoun who filed a bill in the House of Delegates, said he has heard more from voters on this issue than almost any other. A ban “is what constituents want; this is what Virginians want; this is what my constituents are telling me — people who work hard and earn their money and earn their status,” Ramadan said.
A nearly identical bill was filed in the state Senate by Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun).
The lawmakers say that existing law clearly intended to prohibit undocumented immigrants from paying the lower rates — even though, as Herring argues, state code does not specifically address young immigrants with temporary legal status.
Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, an Arlington County Democrat who sponsored one of several recent Virginia versions of the “DREAM Act” that the legislature did not pass, called the effort by Black and Ramadan “shortsighted, wrongheaded and ugly.”
Ramadan’s version of the bill has yet to be referred to a House committee, the first step toward a vote; in the Senate, Black’s bill has been sent to the Committee on Education and Health.
Should either make it out of the Republican-controlled legislature, it would likely face a veto from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). A McAuliffe spokeswoman said he “believes that Virginia children who were brought here at a young age, grew up here and have stayed out of trouble should have access to the same educational opportunities as everyone else.”
College tuition at state universities and community colleges can triple or quadruple for nonresidents, and many undocumented students have said they cannot afford to pay out-of-state rates.
Because Herring announced his directive in April, well after most college application deadlines, the impact has been hard to measure. Fewer than 100 students covered by the presidential initiative have enrolled in one of Virginia’s four-year public universities, according to numbers from the State Council of Higher Education.
Like the two lawmakers challenging him, Herring hails from Loudoun, a fast-growing exurb where immigration has long proved a divisive flash point. In the past, county officials have tried to drive out illegal immigrants by limiting access to county services and penalizing employers who hired them.
In October, Loudoun’s Board of Supervisors asked for federal reimbursement for costs associated with 227 unaccompanied minors who were placed with sponsors in the county after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Herring, who is considered a likely candidate for governor in 2017, has made a name for himself by issuing legal opinions on high-profile issues, including gay marriage. Conservatives say his ruling on tuition is an example of top Democratic officeholders ignoring the law.
“We’ve got families who have paid Virginia taxes for a lifetime in the hopes that maybe one of their kids can go to a state institution of higher learning, and all of a sudden, we’re going to have foreigners on the fast track,” Black said.
Ramadan, an immigrant from Lebanon, said he paid out-of-state tuition as a student at George Mason University.
Advocates of Herring’s position say the state will benefit from letting those with temporary status pay in-state tuition, since such students will likely pay more in taxes and contribute more to the state if they can afford college.
At least 18 states have laws allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona, Georgia and Indiana explicitly bar such students from paying in-state rates.
Dayana Torres, an undocumented immigrant who studies at George Mason, said she and other advocates are still pushing for DREAM Act legislation in Virginia to prevent Herring’s policy from being reversed by a future attorney general who interprets the law differently.