Lawsuit hopes to make Virginia students who are not citizens eligible for in-state tuition
Rebeca Orellana Montano graduated from Washington-Lee High School in June with honors and a 4.3 grade point average and is currently studying Civil & Infrastructure Engineering at George Mason University as a freshman. But even though she has lived in Northern Virginia for 13 of her 18 years, she does not qualify for Virginia in-state tuition.
Montano was born in Bolivia and was brought to Virginia by her parents when she was 5 years old. “We came here on a visa that expired, and stayed,” she said. “That is what makes me ineligible for in-state tuition, and why I have to pay nearly three times as much as other students who I went to high school with.”
Under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Montano and about 7,000 other DACA students living in Virginia are authorized to work in the United States, obtain a social security number, a Virginia driver’s license, and they can renew their DACA status indefinitely. But when it comes to higher education, they pay an average of two to three times the in-state tuition rate if they choose to attend college in their home state. For Montano, that means a four-year degree from GMU will cost her family nearly $120,000. “I don’t know how we will do it,” she said.
On Dec. 17, The Falls Church-based Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit in Arlington County on behalf of seven student plaintiffs like Montano — although she is not a plaintiff — who are asking the court to overrule the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s interpretation of the law, and recognize that DACA recipients should be eligible for much cheaper in-state tuition rates — like other Virginia high school graduates.
The federal DACA program was announced in June of 2012 and grants temporary relief for students living in the country without legal permission who were brought to the U.S. as minors, avoided run-ins with the law and graduated from high school, but currently SCHEV classifies them as categorically ineligible for in-state tuition rates at Virginia’s public colleges and universities. For some, such as Giancarla Rojas Mendoza, 19 — who graduated from Falls Church High School in Fairfax County in June 2012 — that can mean that a school such as GMU can be completely out of reach.
“I graduated with a 3.4 GPA and worked hard,” she said. “Education is a tool to help you to build a better life. I was always taught that if you worked hard, studied and got good grades, you could go to college. I am not asking for money, I am only asking for the same opportunity as others, and to not be treated differently and in such a way that it could impact my entire life.”
Mendoza is one of the seven plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
According to the Legal Aid Justice Center, the suit is part of a broad, multi-pronged effort to extend eligibility for in-state tuition to Virginia residents who have been granted DACA status. On behalf of its clients, Legal Aid Justice Center will also be asking the incoming McAuliffe administration to take executive action.
“We’re just asking the court to take a look at existing Virginia law,” said Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg. “We think the court will agree that under existing law, these students should be eligible for in-state tuition benefits, just like their other Virginia classmates.”
Plaintiffs will also be asking lawmakers to take legislative action during the upcoming General Assembly session again this year.
“This case is about Virginia high school graduates wanting to continue their education here in Virginia,” said Tim Freilich, Legal Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program.
“Virginia should be helping these students realize their dreams, not putting unnecessary obstacles in their path.”
SCHEV spokesperson Kirsten Nelson declined comment on the suit, citing pending litigation.