illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition in Virginia


Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring thrust himself and his state back into the national spotlight on Tuesday by announcing that some illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children can qualify for in-state tuition under existing law.

Herring made the announcement at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus, three months after he declared the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

“We should welcome these smart, talented, hard-working young people into our economy and society, rather than putting a stop sign at the end of 12th grade,” Herring (D) said to sustained applause and cheers from a room full of Latino students, immigration activists and education officials.

Announced in Spanish, Hindi, Vietnamese and Korean, in addition to English, Herring’s move could fortify the Democrats’ already strong position with legal immigrants, the fastest growing slice of the electorate.

But the move is not without peril in a purple state where the 2016 presidential election is expected to be heavily contested — and where opinions about immigration policy remain sharply divided. He also risks galvanizing conservatives across Virginia and in other swing states ahead of this fall’s midterm elections.

Herring, who squeaked by Republican rival Mark D. Obenshain to win the office last fall, hails from Loudoun County, a Washington exurb that has swung back and forth in recent elections and where immigration policy has long divided voters.

Legislative move thwarted

The announcement came following a legislative session in which a Republican-dominated House of Delegates firmly rejected a “Dream Act,” which would have accomplished through statute what Herring did Tuesday with the stroke of a pen.

Republicans, who have been trying to cultivate stronger ties to minority groups nationally and in increasingly diverse Virginia, were cautious in reacting to the announcement.

They focused most of their criticism on Herring’s perceived end-run around state law, a line of attack that echoed their criticism of Herring’s decision not to defend the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage.

“our esteemed AG once again making up the law,” Del. Greg Habeeb (R-Salem) tweeted.

That argument dovetails with Republicans warnings that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will try to expand Medicaid through executive order if he can’t get legislators to go along — a possible resolution to the budget battle that threatens to shut down the state government if it is not resolved before July 1.

Herring sent a letter Tuesday to the presidents of Virginia colleges and universities and to the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. In it, he advised that under current law, Virginia students who are lawfully present in the United States under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program already qualify for in-state tuition as long as they meet the state’s residency requirements.

“Even apart from being the right thing to do, it is what the law requires,” he wrote.

Herring’s legal interpretation that students benefiting from the program have legal “domicile” in the state is valid only as long as he is in office. Still, his interpretation has suddenly opened the door to a faster, cheaper path to a full college education.

Students hugged and wept after Herring’s announcement, which they said would make a radical difference in their future prospects.

“I came here when I was 12, and I have been working since I was 16. It takes me a whole month of work to pay for one class,” said Ambar Pinto, 20, a Northern Virginia Community College student from Bolivia. “Now, I”ll be able to go to U.-Va., which has been my dream forever.”

McAuliffe offered his full support.

“As I said throughout my campaign, I believe that Virginia children who were brought here at a young age, grew up here, and have stayed out of trouble, should absolutely have access to the same educational opportunities as everyone else.,” he said in a written statement. “To grow a 21st Century economy, Virginia needs to be open and welcoming to all who call our Commonwealth home, and I am encouraged to see progress being made in this area during my administration.”

While Herring’s move drew condemnation from Republicans, they tried to cast themselves as open to discussion.

“We are deeply concerned by the Attorney General’s actions today and what appears to be a continued willingness to ignore and circumvent the duly-adopted laws of the Commonwealth,” said a statement issued by House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other Republican House leaders. “For the second time since taking office just a few short months ago, Mark Herring has demonstrated blatant disregard for his oath of office, his responsibilities as Attorney General of Virginia, and most importantly, the rule of law. Attorney General Herring has once again placed his personal, political ideology ahead of the will of the people and their elected representatives.”

“The numerous and complex policy questions surrounding immigration are the subject of a vigorous and ongoing political and legislative debate at both the federal and state level,” their letter said. “Undoubtedly, many Virginians hold sharply contrasting views on these issues and how they should be resolved. What is clear and not subject to debate, however, is that these issues should be considered, discussed and eventually resolved through the legislative and democratic processes, not by the unilateral actions of one individual.”

Impact on schools

The decision could have substantial implications for Virginia colleges and universities as they prepare for an influx of students and a reduction in what some existing students are paying.

More than 18,000 students at Northern Virginia Community College are first- or second- generation immigrants, said Robert G. Templin, Jr., the school’s president. “Many are our best and brightest students. They represent an important part of the future of our region and the future of Virginia.”

Across the country, 19 states, including Maryland, have enacted some form of in state college tuition for qualified young illegal immigrants, spanning a range of regions and political leanings. The others are: Texas, California, Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, Michigan and Rhode Island.

In Virginia more than 8,000 illegal youths have been approved for temporary legal status under Obama’s policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and in Maryland about 7,000 have been approved. Nationwide, more than half a million applicants have won approval based on their age, length of time in the United States, clean criminal records and full-time enrollment in

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