The University of Uncertainty

Friday, March 14, 2008

  • Susan Kinzie
  • Washington Post

When Nelson Lopez applied to Virginia colleges this year, it never occurred to him that he might not be considered a state resident. After all, he has lived in the state since he was a baby, holds a voter registration card and will graduate this spring from an Alexandria high school.

Then last month, he got an e-mail from the University of Virginia: If he wanted to be considered an in-state student, he had to prove that his parents are in this country legally.

Lopez, 18, was born here -- he's a U.S. citizen. But his parents are illegal immigrants.

In the years since a huge wave of immigrants began pouring into the country, their U.S.-born children are graduating from high school and finding that citizenship may not be enough.

Last week, the Virginia state attorney general's office weighed in, saying that schools must look at parents' legal status, because students are considered dependent until they are 24 years old. That means the children of parents without legal residency must be considered for out-of-state admission and tuition.

The attorney general's memo emphasized that state law allows exceptions on a case-by-case basis, if students 18 or older can offer convincing evidence that they should be considered separately from their parents.

That gives students such as Lopez a chance -- and leaves them in limbo.

He says his family, five people squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment, could never afford out-of-state rates. That's why he applied only to state schools in Virginia. It's far more difficult for out-of-state students to get into public universities.

"This is an amazing kid," said Krishna Leyva, director of a mentoring program at T.C. Williams High School. His neighborhood has gangs and drugs, but he takes tough classes, copy-edits the school paper and spends many days volunteering after school, tutoring other students. "He does so many good things, yet he keeps his [grade-point average] so high. And he was born here -- his dad pays taxes. I was really shocked."

What to do about illegal immigration has flared up in the presidential campaign, in state legislative chambers, on street corners. It gets to the heart of how people define this country, its promise, its opportunities, its loyalties and its obligations.

"Let's take care of our own people," said Brad Botwin, who runs an advocacy group called Help Save Maryland and testified recently at a hearing on a Maryland bill that would extend in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants who meet certain residency and tax requirements. It's more competitive than ever to get into state colleges, he said, and more expensive. "Why would you give priority to someone who should rightly be arrested and deported?"

But students have the right to a public education through 12th grade in this country, advocates argue.

"Why in the world would the community seek to prevent further education that's only going to result in further contribution back to the state, in terms of workforce capacity, productivity, increased revenue?" asked Dan Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

It's one of the most contentious issues in higher education, he said. It's been especially volatile in Virginia.

"It's something that the general public is very sensitive to right now, that they do not want to provide incentives for continued illegal immigration, and they don't want to reward illegal behavior," said Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), sponsor of a bill that would ban in-state tuition for illegal immigrants but provide exceptions for students who meet a series of tax and residency criteria.

Immigration law is complex, he said, and often the debate gets hung up on black-and-white issues when there's a lot of gray in the middle.

That's the trouble, said Bob Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, where the staff deals daily with intricacies of immigration law and thorny, unexpected situations.

Case in point: What to do about children born in the United States?

This year, the school changed its policy to emphasize that students 18 and older can make a case to be considered state residents.

"This is an important issue that is only now emerging in the commonwealth, one that current policies did not anticipate," he said.

"People have children born here who are graduating from high school," he said. "One of my concerns is that many of these students tend to be reluctant to press this issue, because they're fearful it will jeopardize their parents. That's unfortunate, that any young person who has a legitimate claim" might just turn away.

That's what Luz Jamilla Penarete did. She started school at George Mason University after graduating from Annandale High School in 2006, but when she registered for classes, she was shocked to find that the tuition was almost three times what she had expected. She thought it was a simple mistake -- she was born in Fairfax and has lived in Virginia all her life. But when she asked people in the domicile office why she was classified as out-of-state, she said they told her it was because her mother, a housekeeper and babysitter, is an illegal immigrant.

Penarete borrowed money, but after a year of classes, she couldn't afford any more and dropped out to work two jobs. She hopes to re-enroll next fall with the money she has saved, and with a lot of loans. "I know I'm probably not the only kid going through this," she said.

School officials did not comment on the specific case, but a spokesman confirmed that if a U.S. citizen's parents are illegal immigrants, the student would not qualify for in-state tuition.

Nelson Lopez is worried. He doesn't want to get his father, who works in the warehouse of a carpet-and-blinds store, in trouble. And he's really scared that when his adviser challenges the colleges on this point, he might be hurting his chances of admission -- what applicant wants to pick a fight? He was just going to accept the situation, maybe get a job and take a bus from his dad's apartment to classes at a community college, but Leyva was furious.

U-Va. officials said they could not talk about his case specifically. A spokeswoman pointed out that the school offers generous need-based financial aid, so low-income students should not have to go to another school because of the cost.

And Andrea Leeds Armstrong, of the university's committee on Virginia status, said last week after reading the memo, "I'm glad this decision came down," clarifying that students could make their own case separate from their parents. "Let me just say, I'm really happy to get this advice."

This week, the university asked Lopez to reapply for in-state tuition.