Undocumented students put hopes in Virginia tuition bill | VailDaily.com

Undocumented students put hopes in Virginia tuition bill

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

WASHINGTON – Lidia Pereyra knows there are plenty of people who think that taxpayers shouldn’t pay any part of her tuition – and that families such as hers should have stayed out of the United States.But if she couldn’t finish college …She stopped and briefly closed her brown eyes, rimmed with green shadow.”I don’t know,” she said.She knows full well that her future without a college degree would be like the least of her present. More hours working as a receptionist at a car dealership and as a store clerk. No more anatomy classes. No career as a nurse practitioner.”I don’t want the thought,” she said.Pereyra assumed she would be a legal, permanent resident by the time she got to college. Now, at 20, the oldest child in a family that came to a farm in Winchester, Va., from Mexico about a decade ago, she is caught up in a debate over illegal immigration that has grown in intensity across the country and recently become acute in Virginia.Some Virginia lawmakers have pushed bills to keep illegal immigrants out of state colleges entirely – so far, unsuccessfully. Pereyra had pinned her hopes to a bill – which reflected a real shift in the political climate and was passed overwhelmingly by the state Senate – that would help students like her. It would allow some undocumented students with long-standing ties to Virginia to pay in-state tuition.But an informal opinion from a deputy attorney general froze that possibility for this year.A much-debated federal law bans states from giving benefits to students who are not here legally if the benefits aren’t available to U.S. citizens. The opinion warned legislators that the bill would force schools to open up the in-state rate to students throughout the country.Hearing that, a House subcommittee voted to carry the bill over. But the lawmakers didn’t kill it.”We’ve not seen the end of it, that’s for sure,” said Del. Thomas Davis Rust, R-Fairfax, chairman of the higher education subcommittee.That’s because it’s a question not only of cost – out-of-state tuition is about three times as much, enough to tip the balance from a college degree to nothing at all for some – but of identity.For critics, undocumented residents are illegals – freeloaders who take away jobs and form gangs. Others see valedictorians, hardworking families and the American dream hobbled by red tape.About the only thing they agree on is that the system is broken.Millions of illegal immigrants have entered the United States in recent decades, and more than 20 years ago, a Supreme Court ruling established certain rights: Public primary and secondary schools cannot deny an education to foreign-born children, no matter how they got here or what their legal status is.A generation later, some of those kids are graduating from American high schools.Their parents’ stories are often complicated, with laws broken and laws followed, rules complied with and deadlines missed, and the children caught up in the ugly tangle of Catch-22s that follows illegal immigration. Others are just stuck, waiting for approvals.A bill sponsored by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, would ban in-state tuition for illegal immigrants but carve out exceptions for students such as Pereyra who have lived in Virginia for years and graduated from high schools in the commonwealth, whose families have paid taxes and who are actively seeking U.S. permanent residency.An estimated 65,000 students could be eligible nationally – most of whom don’t go on to college. Some analysts guessed hundreds or possibly even a few thousand would qualify in Virginia.It seems odd, said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, to let people who aren’t supposed to be in the country enroll in public universities. “Then, to subsidize it at taxpayer expense – most people in Virginia and elsewhere think that doesn’t make sense.” He said it’s part of a larger agenda working toward amnesty for illegal immigrants: “You find the most telegenic, appealing group of illegals – kids who want to go to college. You don’t start with an MS-13 member. “Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, said: “We have people who have waited in line for years to obtain the proper documentation and to obtain legal status, and in essence, we’re punishing them … by rewarding those who have chosen not to follow the law.”Some advocates for immigrants argue that is an oversimplification. “It’s not that they’re not trying to become legal,” said Luis Parada, a private lawyer who does pro bono work on this issue. It can take many years to go through the process. Some have temporary protected status or another legal intermediate step.”Colleges in Virginia have been making many mistakes,” Parada said, “because immigration law is so complicated – even students who are legally here are being wrongfully labeled illegal.”Tensions have been simmering in Congress and about half of the state legislatures. Nine states have enacted similar laws in recent years, with ongoing attempts to overturn them.”There’s a multi-front assault that’s taking shape on these laws,” including class-action suits, said Travis Reindl of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. There’s still a lot of disagreement about the federal law, he said. “The upshot of that for Virginia is that even if they pass something they are going to have a target on their back in terms of this law standing. They’re going to have people lined up to fight it.”

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