RICHMOND, Va. — Although he graduated high school with a 4.02 GPA and scholarship offers, his lack of a social security number meant Cristian Lemus was unable to work, get a license and pay for college. Lemus moved with his family from Guatemala City to Harrisonburg in 2006.
“If we get free education through middle school, through high school, how can we get denied to attend higher education just because we are undocumented in this country?” Lemus asked. “If we have a better educated country, it’s better for the country and it’s better for the wealth of the country.”
After attending Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, he said he planned on attending a public university due to cost.
Recent policy changes at the national and state level have opened the door for undocumented students to be eligible for in-state tuition. According to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia, there were 81 undocumented students who received in-state tuition benefits and the number is expected to increase in the years to come.
When President Barack Obama implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, it changed Lemus’ life. He had previously fought as an activist for the passing of the DREAM Act. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website defines DACA as a renewable status that legally grants deferment from the risk of being deported, but does not grant lawful status as a citizen. The status is valid for two years at a time.
In 2014, Lemus and other students in Virginia gained the option to pay in-state tuition after Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring released an opinion granting this to those who qualify under DACA for at least a year.
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, director of the Immigration Advocacy Program for the Legal Aid Justice Center, said while this will help many people, many people are still missing out because of the one-year restriction. The Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide organization with offices in Falls Church, Richmond and Charlottesville that provides free legal services to people regardless of legal status as well as an immigrant advocacy program.
“Ultimately we believe that anyone who is a Virginian should be entitled to in-state tuition in Virginia and that’s regardless of their legal status,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “Of course that’s going to take an act of the General Assembly to fix, and I don’t anticipate that happening this year, that’s for sure.”
Before Herring’s involvement, Sandoval-Moshenberg and the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven individuals seeking in-state tuition in 2013. After the attorney general’s opinion, two of the students were able to immediately transfer from community college to four-year public colleges. Even after the attorney general’s announcement, the office received cases from people who were wrongly denied in-state tuition within the first six months of the decision.
“The question is, do we want [students] to have access to our higher education institutions, which means that they can get ahead in life, lift their families out of poverty, and reach their full potential as Virginians?” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “Or do we want to keep them stuck … I think there’s a strong economic and anti-poverty reason why this extension of in-state tuition to students with DACA has really been beneficial.”
The American Immigration Council reported that as of March 2014, 553,197 people have been approved to the DACA program nationwide. In Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education provides guidelines for institutions on in-state tuition for DACA students.
Lee Andes, assistant director for Financial Aid at SCHEV, said in order to be eligible for in-state tuition an independent or dependent student must establish “by clear, convincing evidence that for at least one full year that domicile has been established in the commonwealth.”
There were 81 students in Virginia last year who qualified for in-state tuition under DACA and Andes expects the number to increase. Every institution has its own application for in-state tuition or application for domicile. Then it’s a matter of whatever information the college asks for in support of that, Andes said.
VCU admissions processor Christi Malone said a common misconception is that in-state tuition is automatically granted in Virginia, which it is not. Whether U.S. citizen or permanent resident, all students are responsible for filling out a questionnaire in applications to demonstrate they have lived in Virginia for at least a year.
Conversely, according to Michael Walsh, dean of admissions at James Madison University, the university enrolled 15 to 20 students with DACA status.
Tim Wolfe, dean of admissions at the College of William & Mary, stated in an email that while the university followed the attorney general’s guidance, the recent entering class had less than 1% of students enrolling with DACA.
“These are students who are now legal in the United States, so whether or not you agree or disagree that they should be legal, the fact is that they are legal,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said.
This story was reported by the “iPadJournos” mobile and social media journalism project, a cooperation between WTVR.com and VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students from the project reported this story.