|NOVA student Giancarla Rojas Mendoza and Tim Freilich of the Legal Aid Justice Center.|
Rojas Mendoza is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to reverse that policy. The suit was filed Dec. 17 by the Legal Aid Justice Center in Arlington Circuit Court on behalf of seven graduates of Virginia high schools who have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status by the federal government.
Their objective is help the thousands of Virginia students in similar circumstances who want to pursue higher education and professional careers, but for whom the out-of-state tuition rate would be a huge financial burden.
The lawsuit asks the court to overrule a policy of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV)—implemented at the direction of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli—that requires DACA students to pay the out-of-state tuition rate at state colleges and universities.
Under the federal DACA policy, announced in June 2012, youths who were brought to the United States before they turned 16, are attending or graduated from high school, are under age 31, and have not been convicted of a crime can apply for “deferred action.” If their application is approved, they can apply for a work permit, Social Security benefits, and a driver’s license—without fear of being deported—and can renew their “deferred action” status indefinitely.
The lawsuit charges that DACA students should be considered Virginia residents and thus eligible for the in-state tuition rate at state colleges and universities.
“This case is about Virginia high school graduates wanting to continue their education here in Virginia,” said Tim Freilich, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, at a news conference at the center’s offices in Seven Corners Dec. 17.
“Virginia should be helping these students realize their dreams, not putting unnecessary obstacles in their path,” Freilich said. “We invested in these students; we want them to be productive members of society.” If students know they’ll be able to attend college at the in-state rate, that will give them a huge incentive to study hard in high school—and encourage them look forward to a professional career and a brighter future.
“We’re just asking the court to take a look at existing Virginia law,” added Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg. “We think the court will agree that under existing law, these students should be eligible for in-state tuition benefits, just like their other Virginia classmates.”
The complaint seeks declaratory relief allowing all DACA students in Virginia to be eligible for the in-state rate under current law. That will benefit students right away, as they register for the next semester.
Meanwhile, the center is planning to ask the incoming McAuliffe administration to take executive action to make it clear that students with DACA status are eligible for in-state tuition and will also seek action in the General Assembly. Del. Kaye Kory of Annandale and Del. Alfonso Lopez of Arlington/Bailey’s Crossroads are planning to introduce legislation to address this issue.
If elected officials want to make this change happen, they can do it right away, Freilich said. They don’t have to wait for a ruling in the center’s lawsuit.
As of September 2013, 9,000 Virginia youths applied for DACA status, and 7,000 of them have been approved.
Rojas Mendoza said she knows of about 20 other former classmates at Falls Church who were undocumented, but very few of them had the opportunity to go college.
Even though the cost of out-of-state tuition is a huge obstacle, she refused to give up her dream of college. She is a sophomore at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), taking 15 credits, which is costing $6,000. The out-of-state rate is $322 per credit hour at NOVA, compared to an in-state rate of $143.
Rojas Mendoza has gotten scholarship money, and her parents are paying the rest, which is challenging for them. Her father works in building maintenance, and her mother is a chef in a bakery. She doesn't know how she will be able to transfer to GMU, as its out-of-state rate is about $30,000 a year.
“I’m not asking for money from the government. I just want an opportunity to go to college. I want to stay here and help my community,” she said.
Lube Villarroel Orellana, a 2013 graduate of Annandale High School, is in a similar situation. She is attending NOVA part time, with hopes of eventually transferring to a four-year college and majoring in international relations.
She is using scholarship money to help pay the out-of-state tuition costs at NOVA, but she’s also depleting her family’s savings, which is a hardship as her father is an unemployed carpenter and her mother is a nanny. She can only attend school part time, and that means it will take her much longer to graduate.
Now 18, Villarroel Orellana came to the Unites States from Bolivia when she was 5 years old and has never gone back there. “I know more about Virginia than Bolivia,” she said. If the policy on DACA students changes, she hopes her older brothers will have an opportunity to graduate from college, too.
The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Blanca Correa, 22, and German Ivan Soto Navez, 21, both from Harrisonburg; Miriam Garcia Aleman, 19, of Albemarle County; Ramiro Vazquez Morales, 20, of Charlottesville; and Stefany Viruez Guzman, 19, of Arlington. All were brought to the United States as children and are now attending community college at the out-of-state rate.