Immigrant plaintiffs who sued for lower tuition rates get a big victory

Monticello High School graduate Ramiro Vazquez Morales (second from left, with his siblings) said the recent Attorney General’s decision making DACA-status immigrants like him eligible for in-state tuition means he’ll be able to afford college. Photo: Elli Williams Monticello High School graduate Ramiro Vazquez Morales (second from left, with his siblings) said the recent Attorney General’s decision making DACA-status immigrants like him eligible for in-state tuition means he’ll be able to afford college. Photo: Elli Williams

Last year, Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) filed a lawsuit seeking in-state college tuition for Virginia youth who immigrated to the U.S. illegally as children, and on April 29, the plaintiffs—including some from Albemarle County—won a major victory, though it wasn’t in the courtroom. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring stood in front of a cheering crowd at a Northern Virginia community college and announced that under his interpretation of Virginia law, immigrants with a special status known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, could apply for the lower tuition rates at schools in the Commonwealth.

“This is about Virginia high school graduates wanting to continue their education here in Virginia,” said Tim Freilich, the director of the LAJC’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, in the wake of Herring’s announcement. “It’s completely appropriate that Virginia should help these students realize their dreams.”

The DACA initiative, laid out by the Obama administration in June of 2012, didn’t offer a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as kids, but it did open doors for a generation of people who grew up here. Now, if people currently under age 31 who came to the states before they were 16 renew their status every two years, they can stay indefinitely. They can get a Social Security number, work legally, and get a driver’s license.

To Albemarle resident Ramiro Vazquez Morales, DACA also meant something else: college.

Now 21, Vazquez Morales came to the U.S. when he was 10 with his three sisters and two brothers from Mexico City. His family of eight first lived in an apartment off Mountainwood Road, just south of Charlottesville in Albemarle, but a few years later, their illegal status forced them to move to a trailer in Southwood mobile home park just down the road.

Vazquez Morales learned about the DACA initiative when he was in his senior year at Monticello High School. He attended a workshop at Church of the Incarnation, where he got help applying for the new status.

“I was really hopeful, because with that, you can continue to school,” he said. He was working and getting paid in cash, “but it wasn’t a job job.” He dreamed about being a chef, but he couldn’t count on getting the education he needed to have a career.

He still remembers the date his work permit card showed up: January 17, 2013. He graduated that spring and was accepted at Piedmont Virginia Community College. But just as important as getting in was getting approved for in-state tuition. The per-credit cost of classes at the out-of-state rate was almost two and a half times what it was at the in-state rate.

“They said I could be approved with my parents’ tax return, my transcripts, and the driver’s license,” he said. “But when I went there and put all those papers together, they said the college was going to have a meeting.”

Not long after, he got a call: The school was sorry, but it couldn’t approve his request. He didn’t want to give up.

“I paid out-of-state,” he said. “It was almost $3,000, and I only did one semester because I couldn’t afford the other one. I dropped out completely and got a full-time job.”

Vazquez Morales’ story was playing out all over the state. Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church—a sister center to the organization here in Charlottesville—had several clients come to him asking why they had been turned down for in-state tuition. He couldn’t figure it out.

“We looked at the relevant opinions from the attorney general’s office, and none of them said anything about DACA one way or the other,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. It wasn’t until he filed a Freedom of Information Act request that he found out what had happened: the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia had sent an e-mail to colleges saying that Ken Cuccinelli’s attorney general’s office had advised them—informally, without any public announcement—that DACA kids didn’t qualify for in-state tuition.

So Sandoval-Moshenberg and his colleagues in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville prepared a lawsuit, with Ramiro Vazquez and other locals among the plaintiffs. Their legal argument went like this: While the Virginia state code says aliens on student or temporary visas can’t qualify for in-state tuition, DACA status isn’t actually temporary, because it can be renewed in perpetuity, just like a citizen’s driver’s license.

It turned out they never had to argue their case. They filed suit in late 2013, in the waning days of the Cuccinelli administration. Shortly after Herring was sworn in, his staff asked for some time to look at the issue. Ultimately, the LAJC backed off, but retained the right to refile the suit. Even as attorneys and plaintiffs watched a bill that would have adjusted the state code to expressly allow in-state tuition for those with DACA status die in Richmond during the General Assembly’s session in January, they hung on to hope.

And then came the long-awaited answer. When Herring made his announcement, he used the very legal argument that the LAJC suit had.

“No provision of federal or Virginia law can be read to punish these smart, talented, hardworking young people or to relegate them to a life of limited opportunities,” Herring wrote. “Even apart from being the right thing to do, it is what the law requires.”

Virginia Republicans slammed Herring for the decision, saying it amounted to an end run around the legislature. Herring had already drawn their fire when, less than a month after he was sworn in, he announced he would side with plaintiffs in a federal suit aimed at overturning Virginia’s gay marriage ban.

“Our esteemed AG once again making up the law,” tweeted Salem Republican Delegate Gregory Habeeb in the wake of the DACA announcement.

But Sandoval-Moshenberg said the decision makes sense—and will have immediate results.

“The impact of this is just tremendous,” he said. Not only does it mean more kids can afford college, period, it means more of them will be able to go to four-year institutions, he said. Many with DACA status could have gone to UVA or JMU, but settled for getting associate’s degrees because the cost of being a full-time student at the out-of-state rate put those schools out of reach.

“I’ve already talked to so many students who went from the press conference home and prepared their transcripts to send them to four-year colleges,” he said.

Vazquez Morales is already preparing to apply again to return to PVCC, and so is his sister Patricia. Before, there was no way the family could afford to enroll both of them, he said.

Still, in-state tuition isn’t a given, the LAJC’s Freilich pointed out. Students have to meet the rest of the requirements, which include being domiciled—in the immigrants’ case, having DACA status—in Virginia for a year before applying. But now they’re on a level playing field.

PVCC president Frank Friedman has said the college welcomed the change.

“It is always difficult to inform any student that they don’t qualify for in-state tuition for whatever reason that they don’t qualify,” he said.

Vazquez Morales is already thinking ahead. “I want to own my own restaurant,” he said. “Those are my big hopes and dreams, and I’m going to make that come true.”

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