A brighter future for “dreamers”

May 4, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

In December, we wrote about Rebeca Orellana, a young woman who was raised in Arlington, Va., graduated with top honors from Washington-Lee High School and studies engineering at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. – where she pays tuition three times higher than what her high school classmates pay. She has intellect, ambition and a solid work ethic. But, by making college all but unaffordable, the state of Virginia was doing everything in its power to thwart her dreams.

On Tuesday, the attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, a Democrat, shifted the state’s irrational policy of denying in-state tuition rates to students like Ms. Orellana, who was brought to this country at age 5 by her undocumented parents but is now lawfully present under a reprieve granted by the Obama administration. Mr. Herring informed the state’s public colleges and universities that students like Ms. Orellana, having qualified to remain in the United States, must be considered full-fledged residents of Virginia and eligible for in-state tuition.

The practical effect of Mr. Herring’s decree is that the students will face far more affordable tuition payments. Yet while the effect is profound for qualified students, it is modest for the state. Just 8,100 youngsters in Virginia have been granted authorization to stay in the United States under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows them to work legally. And the pool of those granted deferments is not likely to grow much, since applicants must have arrived in the United States by their 16th birthday and lived here continuously since 2007.

Of that pool, no more than a few thousand may have the drive, aptitude and wherewithal to attend college, meaning just a few hundred, at most, are likely to apply to the state’s public colleges and universities each year over the next decade or so. The impact on college admissions, and college campuses, will be negligible.

Despite that, Virginia Republicans are howling. In Richmond, they have blocked legislation to grant in-state tuition to DACA-qualified students, though the bill probably would have passed had GOP leaders allowed the House of Delegates to vote on it. Now they accuse Mr. Herring of flouting the law – without citing any particular law that he has flouted.

Their main argument is that undocumented students, if they qualify for in-state tuition, may displace “native” Virginians at public colleges and universities. That’s true. But so do out-of-state students who move to Virginia and apply to public colleges and universities a year or two later. As a legal matter, Mr. Herring’s ruling means that undocumented Virginia students who qualify under the federal deferment – and may have been here for a decade or more – will have the same domiciliary rights as a California teenager who moved to the state a year or two ago. And the actual number of “native” Virginians displaced as a result of Mr. Herring’s ruling will be minuscule. The ruling is in line with one issued in 2007 by then-Attorney General (and later Gov.) Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican. He instructed the state’s public colleges that immigrants were eligible for in-state tuition if they had been granted temporary protected status by the federal government. Most of those immigrants were from El Salvador and, as with the students covered by Mr. Herring’s order, were living in the United States legally.

It is self-defeating and absurd to deny opportunities to those who were brought to this country as children by their parents, who have done well in school and who have the resolve and intellect to seek higher education. Mr. Herring’s action recognizes that reality.

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