Undocumented immigrants who grew up and graduated from high school in Virginia can now qualify for in-state tuition under existing state law, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) announced on Tuesday. At a press conference held at Northern Virginia Community College, Herring said that immigrants granted temporary legal presence under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a 2012 presidential initiative, are considered lawfully present and thus able to qualify for in-state tuition.
“These ‘DREAMers’ are already Virginians in some very important ways,” Herring said. “In most cases they were raised here, they graduated from Virginia schools, and they have known no home but Virginia. They might be the valedictorian or salutatorian of their high school, but because they were brought here as children many years ago, an affordable education remains out of their reach.
Undocumented immigrants previously had to pay the out-of-state rate, but could now qualify for in-state tuition in Virginia after they have had DACA for one year and can establish residency. Other qualifications include age of arrival, length of residency in the United States, no criminal record, enrollment in school or graduation from a high school, receipt of a GED, or honorable discharge from the U.S. military. The law could affect up to 8,129 DACA recipients living Virginia.
After Herring’s announcement, Giancarla Rojas, a 20-year-old Virginia DACA recipient rejoiced to ThinkProgress, “this is such a relief. It’s been such a struggle.” Rojas spent much of her life in Virginia after coming to the United States as a child. Even with two scholarships, Rojas and her parents are working various jobs to save money for future tuition payments. As a rising college junior, she deliberated for months over a decision to transfer to George Mason University (GMU), where the out-of-state tuition is $29,000. GMU’s in-state tuition hovers at a fraction of that price tag, at $10,000. Herring’s interpretation gave Rojas the confidence to confirm her decision. “I was supposed to give a decision by May 1st. This would save me about $20,000 a year.”
Another 20-year-old DACA recipient Ambar Pinto, told ThinkProgress that her dream school, the University of Virginia, could finally be within reach. Despite working full-time beginning at the age of 16, Pinto has struggled to save enough for college. She used to pay $350 per credit, but is relieved that she will start to pay $150 per credit for her last semester at Northern Virginia Community College.
“Even though I had a scholarship to attend school, it still wasn’t enough to pay for tuition,” Pinto said. “It used to take me at least one month to save for one class, but now I could pay for one class with one week’s pay, so this gives me the possibility of going to school full time.”
Although Rojas and Pinto have struggled to pay their tuition bills, they couldn’t have come as far as they had without private scholarships. The average undocumented household income hovers around $36,000. And other undocumented immigrants in Virginia who don’t have scholarships paid an average of $22,706 for the 2013–2014 academic year, more than three times the average cost for in-state students who paid about $6,829.
Anticipating criticism of his decision, Herring’s press release stated that the decision came from similar guidance set by former Attorney General Bob McDonnell who “advised that in-state tuition may be extended to persons in the United States under ‘Temporary Protected Status,’ granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to those who cannot safely return to their nation of origin.” Even so, VA Del. Greg Habeeb (R) slammed Herring for violating the rule of law within hours of the press conference.
Late last year, Maryland voters approved a similar law in a referendum.