ALEXANDRIA — Attorney General Mark Herring on Tuesday instructed Virginia’s public colleges to grant in-state tuition to potentially thousands of students who were previously considered ineligible because of their immigration status.
The policy change, announced in front of hundreds of cheering immigration advocates at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus, is a change from the Democrat’s Republican predecessors.
In the past, the attorney general’s office had advised that students who entered the country illegally were barred from receiving in-state tuition, even if they were children when they immigrated.
Herring says students can qualify for the reduced tuition under a special immigration status created by the Obama administration for certain young people brought to the U.S. as children.
The change, he said, will allow students who have lived in Virginia to continue their education and become productive members of the workforce “instead of punishing them for the way their parents brought them to the United States as children.”
Herring said the change is immediate and applies to all public colleges in the state.
The change was welcomed by Piedmont Virginia Community College President Frank Friedman, who said he looks forward to helping students who arrived in the U.S. as children.
“PVCC’s mission is to strengthen the commonwealth by serving its people,” Friedman said in a statement. “Our faculty and staff embrace every opportunity to do that.”
A PVCC student, Ramiro Vazquez Morales, was among the seven plaintiffs represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center in a lawsuit filed in December, which argued that students covered by a special immigration status created by the Obama administration should pay in-state tuition rates.
The center released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it had withdrawn the students’ lawsuit.
“Legal Aid Justice Center thanks Attorney General Herring for opening the doors of educational opportunity to these deserving Virginia students,” read the statement.
McGregor McCance, a spokesman for the University of Virginia, said the administration “appreciates Attorney General Herring’s conclusion and looks forward to reviewing this issue in more detail.”
The change brought immediate condemnation from Republicans, who control Virginia’s House of Delegates. They had rejected legislation that would have done the same thing.
“These issues should be considered, discussed and eventually resolved through the legislative and democratic processes, not by the unilateral actions of one individual,” House Republican leaders, including Speaker William Howell, said in a joint statement.
Whether students lacking legal status should receive in-state tuition has been an issue in Virginia and across the nation for more than a decade. In 2002, then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore advised Virginia colleges that they should not even admit illegal immigrants, and if they did, they were barred from granting those students in-state tuition.
In 2004, a federal judge in Alexandria tossed out a lawsuit attacking that policy.
Much has changed since then, however. In 2012, Obama created a special immigration status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for immigrants between the ages of 15 and 32 who came to the U.S. before they turned 16. That status allows them to remain if they have graduated from high school or are enrolled as students and meet other conditions.
Herring said the new category amounts to lawful immigration status for those who hold it, and he is therefore empowered to implement the change. Herring’s office estimated that 8,100 Virginia residents have obtained lawful status under the 2012 program and are now eligible for in-state tuition.
Herring said 19 states have taken similar action, either through state law or by administrative action.