CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. ― Ramiro Vazquez has lived in the Charlottesville area since he was 10 ― a graduate of Monticello High School, he’s continuing his education in Piedmont Virginia Community College’s culinary arts program.
But Vazquez pays nearly $200 more per credit hour than most of his peers. Although he’s been granted the right to work and stay in the country, he’s considered an out-of-state student by Virginia’s higher education officials.
Right now, he can only afford to go to school part-time, which could stretch his two-year program out to three-and-a-half years. He spends much of his time working.
“It’s harder for me,” he said. “I have to work extra hours just to cover out-of-state tuition.”
Vazquez is one of seven immigrant students suing the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for the right to pay in-state rates. All seven were allowed to stay and work in the U.S. for at least the next two years under an order issued by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano ― Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ― in 2012.
But like many immigrant students around the country, they don’t qualify for lower resident tuition rates in the states where they graduated from high school.
Virginia grants in-state status to people who have lived in the state for at least 12 continuous months prior to enrollment and show “an intent to remain in Virginia indefinitely to establish domicile in Virginia,” according to the state council’s website.
Intent can be established in many ways, including sources of financial support, ownership or property, military record, driver’s license and motor vehicle registration.
Tim Freilich, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program, part of the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center, said the students should qualify as in-state students. Most of them have lived in Virginia for years, he said, and most intend to stay. He points out that immigrants applying for asylum are eligible for in-state tuition.
“Under existing law, these students should be eligible for in-state tuition,” Freilich said.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals grants temporary relief for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors, have stayed out of trouble with the law and have graduated from high school or served in the military.
According to the complaint by the Immigrant Advocacy Program, the council sent out emails to colleges around the state saying the 7,000 people granted relief under Deferred Action are not eligible for in-state tuition.
“Technically, nothing has changed in the legal status for these individuals,” read the email. “This will allow qualifying students to work and go to school without fear, but it does not change their lawful status or their domicile.”
Freilich said the council is misreading the law. The students have been granted temporary status, he said, which allows them to work, get driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers. The status runs out after two years, but it can be renewed indefinitely.
Essentially, people covered by Deferred Action could keep renewing their status and stay in the state for years, he said.
“What they’re not realizing is it’s indefinitely renewable two years at a time,” Freilich said.
Spokeswoman Kirsten Nelson said the state council does not comment on pending legal matters.
Other states are struggling with this issue, as well. According to the National Immigration Law Center, a pro-immigration think tank, 15 states ― including Texas, New York and California ― have adopted laws or policies granting immigrant students access to in-state rates.
Deferred Action students exist in a gray area in much of the rest of the country, said Tanya Broder, a staff attorney with the center.
“The rules vary quite a bit by state law,” she said. “And the rules can vary from institution from institution.”
The debate has sparked internal conflict in Arizona, where state Attorney General Tom Horne is suing several community colleges for granting in-state tuition status to immigrants covered under the Deferred Action policy.
Broder said students covered by the policy should qualify for Virginia’s in-state tuition. The spirit of the policy is to give a break to people who are in the state legally, have lived there for an extended period of time and intend to stay, she said.
“They’ve already shown that they live in the U.S. The question is, do they live in Virginia?” she said. “There’s nothing in federal law that precludes them from establishing their home here.”