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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Immigrant students sue for right to pay in-state college tuition

NOVA student Giancarla Rojas Mendoza and Tim Freilich of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
Giancarla Rojas Mendoza, 18, worked really hard as a student at Falls Church High School and planned to attend George Mason University, majoring in economics and political science. But when she learned she would have to pay the out-of-state tuition rate, “that was really painful,” she says. Her parents had brought her from Bolivia to Virginia when she was a child, and because she is undocumented, the Commonwealth of Virginia determined she is ineligible for the in-state rate.

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.


  1. I did not see anything in this article about whether those who claim these students as dependents have regularly paid state income taxes. That is the basis for determining the ability to pay in-state tuition, not how long you have lived in the state. That's why out of state students pay out of state tuition; their income taxes support their own state schools. If you haven't paid income taxes, and you want in-state tuition rates, the in fact you ARE asking for money from the government. It's not about where you live, it's about where you pay taxes.

  2. I'm the lawyer who filed the case. All 7 plaintiffs have paid VA state taxes (their parents, that is) for many years. Yet nonetheless, they were not allowed in-state tuition. That's why we brought the case. Thanks for covering this issue, Ellie!

  3. Until there is immigration reform this will always be an issue. I hope it works out for them and the kids in the future, not their fault that the parents are illegal (undocumented) residents.

    What happens to these kids after they graduate and look for a real job, they will have to have to fill out I-9 forms. What happens then? Will they be able to get hired?

    1. "Until there is immigration reform this will always be an issue." Not true. These people are ILLEGAL. They should be kicked out of our nation. Issue resolved.

  4. Seems pretty simple. If they paid taxes to VA for the legal amount of time then they should get in state tution.
    Also, "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" Maybe this includes really expensive books but the article makes it sound like she is paying this amount for out of state tution. Plus if it is books, they are the same in state out of state so that's not that relevant.

  5. to 12:14am: these students have work authorization. That's part of the DACA program

  6. Thank you 3:57. Makes no sense that we provide everything for low income folks, (food, shelter, pre-k school, health care) yet when it comes to higher education we say no? WTH! These people are looking to better their lives and once they do they may become less of a burden on the society in general.

    1. I think you summed it up in the first line. They come here illegally we take money out of our taxes to give them free food, shelter, pre-k & health care. I can not afford to send my daughter full time to pre-k so I don't. I would love for her to go full time but since I am not within the threshold and because all my income is counted she does not qualify. My question is do their parents file VA State Taxes every year? Not do they pay taxes just because they make purchases or because they work illegally. Our schools are overcrowded and can not sustain the current on slaught of new students who parents do not contribute taxes that support our schools. FCPS are now looking at laying off teachers next year to help with the budget problem. If we pass a law allowing illegals to get In State tuition then we are encouraging this behavior to continue. In the meantime the students that are here legally will be passed over for a spot in our VA State schools because now an illegal can take their space. I am sorry that their parents made a decision for them but their fight is with their parents not with society.

  7. What does "undocumented" mean? She has documents that she was enrolled at FCHS, among other things. I don't understand what documents she needs to go to college in VA.

  8. I believe undocumented to mean - no current legal status to be in the USA. Fairfax County does not care if you are legal or illegal, if you are a kid you are going to school.