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New program paves in-state tuition path for immigrant students

If Stafford County resident Aide Sanchez had been offered an in-state tuition rate at George Mason University back in 2012 when she started there, she says she would have her degree by now.

But the 26-year-old woman, whose parents illegally immigrated to America when she was a child, had to quit school when money ran out because she has to pay the higher out-of-state tuition rate.

So Sanchez went to work to achieve a legal residence status through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That also cost her money she was saving up for her education.

Now, because of a decision by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, she’ll be able to return to college at the in-state rate. Herring’s legal opinion was issued earlier this year after a state Dream Act was defeated in the General Assembly.

It was rejected on a party-line vote in the GOP-controlled Senate Education and Health Committee.

Following Herring’s opinion that the federal DACA law could proceed, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, R–Stafford, and other GOP legislative leaders issued a statement condemning the decision.

“We are deeply concerned by the Attorney General’s actions … and what appears to be a continued willingness to ignore and circumvent the duly adopted laws of the commonwealth,” it said. The statement also charged that Herring placed his personal, political ideology ahead of the will of the commonwealth.


Born in Mexico City, Sanchez lived in Mexico until age 12 when her parents brought her and her sister to the United States.

The family first settled in New York, but moved to Fredericksburg to find a better life. Sanchez has lived, gone to school and worked in the Fredericksburg area since she was 13.

Sanchez is saving up for college classes again, working as a manager at a Five Guys in North Stafford.

“I’ve always said, ‘Education leads to social movement,’” she said.

Now that Virginia is allowing DACA recipients to attend state colleges at the in-state rate, she plans on going back and finishing her degree.

She is majoring in neuroscience at GMU after attaining an associated degree at Germanna Community College.

Eventually, she wants to do research on the brain.

Because of Herring’s opinion, Virginia students who are lawfully present in the country under the DACA program qualify for in-state tuition as long as they meet the state’s residency requirements, Herring said.

The decision will make college more affordable for about 8,100 young immigrants in Virginia.

Herring’s office said state higher education institutions will implement the policy immediately. Swift action will allow high school seniors to plan for fall 2014 admission.

“If the commonwealth is to remain competitive in a global economy, we must embrace a strategy that maximizes our talent pool and helps all Virginians reach their full potential,” Herring said.

“These ‘DREAMers’ are already Virginians in some very important ways. In most cases they were raised here, they graduated from Virginia schools, and they have known no home but Virginia … It’s what the law requires, it makes economic sense for Virginia, and it’s the right thing to do.”

According to new data released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, about 550,000 young undocumented immigrants have received temporary protection from deportation and work authorization since Obama created the DACA program in June 2012.

Nineteen other states—including Texas, New Mexico, California and Oklahoma—have enacted some form of tuition equity at their public colleges and universities.

California and Rhode Island go a step further, allowing eligible immigrants to apply for state financial aid.

Sanchez said it was hard, after graduating from James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, to find out that she did not have the same opportunities as her classmates.

At GMU, in-state tuition totaled $9,908 per year, while out-of-state tuition cost $28,592 per year, during the 2013–14 school year.

The difference between a credit hour at Germanna is $139 for in-state and $333.60 for out-of-state tuition.

Sanchez wasn’t silent in her push for in-state tuition rates. She made phone calls, wrote letters and met with officials to tell her story.

She, with the grassroots political action group Virginia Organizing, talked to state legislators on the House Appropriations Committee, Senate Education and Health Committee, and reached out to officials such as Del. Alfonzo Lopez, D–Arlington County, who has made repeated pushes in the legislature for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

“I felt like it was different, important to hear my side of the story,” said Sanchez, who is a mother. “So they see there are real humans affected by this.”

Like Sanchez, Sue Smith, director of LUCHA Ministries, has written letters and visited elected officials to advocate for an in-state tuition rate, which she called one of the greatest victories for the community in recent years.

LUCHA is a faith-based organization serving the Latinos in the greater Fredericksburg area.

“One of the sad things, a lot of kids lost hope in … high school because they felt college is out of reach,” Smith said. “They just quit. The most challenging and heartbreaking thing to see is a good student give up.”

Smith founded the organization in 2004 after observing the gaps between the Latino community’s needs and what services were available locally.

Smith has helped some DACA students go to private colleges as a way around paying higher tuition at state schools. Tuition at Bluefield College, where she has helped three students attend, is $22,840 per year. But securing scholarship money regardless of immigration status was easier.

One student, she said, had interest from state universities offering soccer scholarships. But after finding out about his immigration status, the schools could not offer tuition assistance.

She said others don’t get responses from inquiries to admissions departments.

Locally at the University of Mary Washington, officials said they don’t have firm data concerning the DACA recipients.

However, UMW spokeswoman Marty Morrison said the school expects the decision of the attorney general will impact a small number of students, 10 or fewer.

Sanchez said her parents still don’t have an immigration status, but she said they were role models, as she hopes to be for her daughter.

“They are so strong, and never let us see them down,” she said. “… I want my daughter to see me be everything I want to be. Getting a college degree, it will give her a better chance.”

Sanchez said she hopes her story will help those opposed to immigration reform understand the need for changes and personal impact of the current laws.

“This is going to impact people who already have roots in Virginia and want to give back to the community,” she said.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976