Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center at Silver Spring. D.C. resident Natalia Villalobos wants to attend the community college school, but she cannot receive a D.C. tuition assistance grant because of her mother’s immigration status. (Alan Karchmer architectural photo)

Natalia Villalobos is a U.S. citizen, born and raised in the District. When she graduated from Emerson Preparatory School in 2015, she planned to enroll in college, study business and child development, and use those skills to open a day care where young children can thrive.

But when she applied for a city tuition assistance grant that would have helped her pay for classes at Montgomery College, the 19-year-old was turned away because her mother is not a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident. She says she cannot afford tuition at the community college without the financial help, and she is now arguing that the program’s rules have violated her civil rights.

Villalobos, with the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), filed a federal lawsuit in the District last week, alleging that the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program unfairly discriminates against U.S. citizens with immigrant parents, including those living in the United States legally. The lawsuit claims DCTAG’s rules are preventing her from accessing thousands of dollars in public aid — aid available to most of her classmates — that would make it possible for her to go to college, arbitrarily getting in the way of her obtaining a college degree.

But Villalobos and her lawyers also say that something larger is at risk: the meaning of U.S. citizenship and equality under the law.

“The issues are clear and alarming,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at MALDEF. “You have a U.S. citizen student who just wants the same chance that everyone else has. Legally, when we start chipping away at what it means to be a United States citizen, we undermine the core principles of our nation.”

The lawsuit illuminates one aspect of the tangle of challenges immigrants across the country face as they strive to provide their children with opportunities to advance. It is akin to lawsuits in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and New Jersey, in which U.S. citizens with undocumented parents have challenged state policies that they say deny equal access to college aid programs or in-state tuition rates.

In this case, a mother who fled dangers in her native El Salvador — obtaining temporary protected status in the United States — found that legally living, working and paying taxes in the District for more than two decades wasn’t enough to get her child access to a program designed to help more of the city’s students go to college.

At the same time, those who fear that immigrants are drawing resources away from low-income Americans argue that taxpayer dollars should be reserved for U.S. citizens and their families. Villalobos is a U.S. citizen, but her mother’s status is the deciding factor for her DCTAG eligibility. (Villalobos’s father is not a part of the family.)

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, said there are some “hard and competing moral claims” in any case that involves immigration and the funding of higher education. On one hand, he said, it is easy to sympathize with a person who wants to go on to college but cannot afford it because they belong to a low-income immigrant family.

“On the other, this is a time when millions of Americans struggle with college costs,” he said, noting that some could argue it doesn’t make sense to let immigrant families use taxpayer subsidies that could otherwise go to low-income citizens.

Villalobos argues that she is one of those low-income citizens who should have access to DCTAG. The federally funded program is unique to the District and has become key to how city residents budget for college, providing grants to help students attend schools outside of the city because of its lack of a strong in-state university system.

Congress created the program in 1999 as a way to give D.C. students more choices for higher education. The program gives students up to $10,000 per year to help them bridge the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition at four-year public colleges in other states; it also gives up to $2,500 per year for such institutions as two-year public schools, nonprofit private colleges and historically black institutions nationwide. D.C. students have used the funds at more than 300 schools in the country.

Wanting to have a choice, too

Villalobos, according to her lawsuit, is set to attend Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Md., where she could use up to $2,500 in DCTAG funding per year to defray the cost. She says the funding is critical to her financial ability to seek a degree.

DCTAG determined she cannot get the grant, even though she is a U.S. citizen, because of her mother’s immigration status. A longtime nanny, her mother has no legal route to apply for a green card, citizenship or asylum. DCTAG’s eligibility guidelines require that an applicant who is a dependent have parents who can provide proof of official residence in the District. Only U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and asylees meet that requirement.

The family argues DCTAG’s requirement that student applicants establish official residency through their parents excludes people who are otherwise eligible.

“Why shouldn’t I have a choice, too,” Villalobos said. “I’m entitled to the same choices as everyone else who lives in D.C., went to high school in D.C. and graduated in D.C.”

When Villalobos was a senior at Emerson Prep in 2015, DCTAG denied her first application. After she applied a second time, the program sent a letter explaining that she would “never” meet the program’s eligibility requirements.

“I was shocked,” Villalobos said. “Honestly, I thought, how can that be? I’m a U.S. citizen. I should have the same rights as every other citizen. This decision shouldn’t be based on my mom’s status.”

The lawsuit is filed against Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). A spokesman with Bowser’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending. While also declining to comment on DCTAG, the spokesman said District residents “should understand that the city remains committed to its stand as a sanctuary city where no person, regardless of immigration status, should fear interaction with any government agency.”

OSSE officials declined to comment on the details of Villalobos’s case, citing student privacy laws. The organization does not collect or maintain data on the reasons that student applications to the grant program are denied, how many students are noncitizens or live with a noncitizen parent. In a statement, the agency indicated that the DCTAG program has “helped make college affordable for thousands of D.C. residents.” 

During the 2015-2016 school year, the last year for which data are available, DCTAG covered some college costs for 4,525 students and deemed 137 student applicants ineligible, or about 3 percent.

That Villalobos cannot qualify for DCTAG because of a parent’s status connects her experience to a growing body of research, debate and litigation circulating around access to higher education, said Hiro Yoshikawa, a professor of globalization and education at New York University’s Steinhardt School. 

“There’s almost no one in higher education who is not, especially since the election, thinking and talking about immigrant students,” Yoshikawa said. “But I have never heard of a citizen student facing these challenges. The D.C. case suggests there are millions more that could face significant college access problems.” 

At least 5 million children who are U.S. citizens live in ­mixed-status households, according to a Center for Migration Studies analysis of census data from 2013. The same organization found that across the country, the share of children born to families with at least one immigrant parent grew from 13.4 percent in 1990 to 25.5 percent in 2015.

Legal challenges nationwide

Matthew Patrick Shaw, a law and social science post-doctorate fellow at the American Bar Foundation, said that while the United States has removed legal barriers to K-12 public education for immigrant children, the country still has not solved access issues relating to higher education.

“Access to education has, in our society and our courts, come to symbolize the way that people can truly be wronged by government,” Shaw said. “Education has such a clear tie to opportunity, to self sufficiency and life outcomes that barriers become almost impossible to justify.”

Groups such as MALDEF have been challenging programs that appear to prevent immigrants and the children of immigrants from accessing state higher education subsidies.

As a result of a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed in 2012, a federal court in Florida overturned a state rule that required the citizen-children of undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state student tuition rates. That same year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a U.S. citizen who had her application for state financial aid rejected in New Jersey on the grounds that her undocumented parents were not legal residents of the state; an appeals court ruled in the student’s favor.

And in 2014, a South Carolina court threw out a MALDEF case challenging state rules barring the children of undocumented immigrants from accessing state financial aid and requiring these students to pay out-of-state tuition rates. The organization has challenged the ruling with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Since graduating from high school, Villalobos has worked a few retail and administrative jobs, served as a dog walker and trainer, and pieced together a life while she tries to scrape the money together to go to college. She wants to someday open a day care.

But the decision to sue, to challenge the fairness of DCTAG’s eligibility guidelines, is not driven by her financial concerns alone. 

“My little sister graduates high school this year,” Villalobos said. “If something doesn’t change, she’ll be in the same situation as me. That just can’t happen.”