The moment Paulina Vazquez mentioned that she herself was a formerly undocumented student at the University of Virginia, she saw two faces in her tour group light up.
“One of them was very comforted to see another student who had made it this far,” said Vazquez, who is a third-year student at UVa and a campus tour guide.
But then Vazquez asked the student if he had received temporary protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows some people who were brought illegally into the United States as children to gain temporary access to work and school.
Gently, Vazquez — a DACA recipient during her first two years at UVa, until she and her family gained legal residency — told the young man that because he was undocumented and did not have DACA status, he would not be allowed to enroll at UVa. Undocumented students must have DACA status to enroll and they must pay tuition out-of-pocket.
“It was very, very hard to see him instantly lose the belief that he could enroll here,” she said. “Then [he and his friend] were asking why [George Mason University] would enroll him but not UVa, since they’re both state schools, and, honestly, I didn’t know what to tell them since I have the exact same questions.”
According to UVa, an estimated 30 DACA recipients currently attend UVa. Only those students who are maintaining valid and lawful status in the U.S. are permitted to enroll in full-time study, according to Susan Davis, an associate vice president of student affairs.
George Mason, however, enrolls more than 250 DACA recipients, according to Katherine Soba, a fourth-year UVa student who is president of DREAMERS on Grounds, a student organization that advocates for undocumented students.
“That number difference is stark and it concerns me because it tells us that DACA students aren’t coming here, which is probably due to financial reasons,” Soba said. “There’s a lot of talk at UVa about needing and valuing diversity and multiculturalism, yet UVa still allows financial barriers to remain and keeps undocumented students from attending this university.”
Vazquez, Soba and other students have been pushing UVa to clarify its current policy for undocumented students’ enrollment and financial aid. They also want it to expand its financial aid program, AccessUVa, to DACA recipients.
In 2014, an opinion by state Attorney General Mark Herring allowed public universities in Virginia to extend in-state tuition rates to DACA students, though it did not offer an opinion on whether universities could or should extend financial aid to those students. Several other states have passed legislation to create financial aid funds specifically for undocumented students. Because undocumented students are not eligible for federal loans or Pell grants, they often must fund their education through private loans.
According to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, individual universities are allowed to decide admission and matriculation policies for undocumented students and students with DACA. The council also maintains that undocumented students can’t qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid, but DACA students exist in-between.
“DACA provides the legal presence needed to be able to establish domicile and be considered for in-state tuition but there are federal restrictions to receiving state benefits like financial aid,” said Laura Osberger, a SCHEV spokeswoman. “It’s a unique situation where a group of students can access one benefit but not the other. “
UVa has chosen to offer DACA students in-state tuition, but it has stopped short of George Mason’s more robust program, which enrolls undocumented students with and without DACA and uses private funds to offer them financial aid.
UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said that at UVa, students must be eligible for federal financial aid to receive AccessUVa aid.
“Financial aid packages are funded from philanthropy, federal grants (Pell) and loans, state grants, institutional resources and private outside scholarships,” he said. “The institutional resources include a mix of grants, work study and loans.”
Online, UVa offers little specific guidance for undocumented students. De Bruyn pointed to UVa’s policy for international students, which states that only international students “maintaining valid and lawful status in the U.S. which permits full-time study at a college or university” can enroll.
A Multicultural Student Services webpage lists federal requirements to apply for DACA and a promotional article about former UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan’s statement of support for students after President Donald Trump announced plans to end the program in 2017. Multiple lawsuits have challenged Trump’s decision, and the program is still in effect as the suits work their way through the courts.
Davis said UVa student affairs staffers assist DACA and other students with dining, employment, academic and counseling needs, and “are generally aware of how George Mason University supports its students with DACA status. Our approach at UVA has been and will continue to be to provide our DACA students with support and resources so that each can succeed academically at the university and be engaged with the broader community.”
Other schools, such as James Madison University and Virginia Commonwealth University, offer detailed guides for DACA students on their websites.
Steven Radilla, a second-year student and a secretary for DREAMERS on Grounds, pointed to a page on George Mason’s website that offers resources for undocumented students and a step-by-step guide to filling out the school’s online application. Students without DACA are offered instructions on how to apply without marking that they are a U.S. citizen or legal resident, but are told they will not be eligible for in-state tuition rates. Without that level of guidance, Radilla said, students may pay to apply to UVa, be accepted, and only then find out they cannot matriculate.
“UVa is really behind institutions in the state and other public Ivies,” Radilla said. “By not clarifying, UVa is putting undocumented students in situations where they’re wasting their time. They apply and they are accepted, and then are told there’s actually no chance of getting in.”
The question is symptomatic of a broader culture of how UVa talks about and treats undocumented and Latinx students, he said.
“The general feeling we get when they interact with DREAMERS on Grounds is they’re sympathetic and want to help, but if they do anything visible, they feel they will draw negative attention from alumni and on the institution,” Radilla said. “They talk about the good we can do together — but it has to be under the table.”
Vazquez has written an FAQ for tour guides, who often are one of a prospective student’s first interactions on Grounds.
With President Jim Ryan’s recent statements of commitment to make UVa accessible to low-income and first-generation students, Vazquez said she’s hopeful that university administrators will add to efforts to clarify the school’s policy for prospective students who are undocumented and expand support and financial aid for existing students.
“I think that enough is enough, and if UVa really wants to pride itself on accessibility, it needs to make this change and open the door to all students,” she said.