Leveling The Field

by | Feb 24, 2020 | POLITICS

Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly have now passed bills allowing undocumented immigrants in Virginia to pay in-state tuition, making college a more realistic option for the Commonwealth’s undocumented students.

The prospect of receiving in-state-tuition rates in college never seemed real for T.C. Williams High School senior Mikeala, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Bolivia when she was 7. 

“I prepared for the worst,” said Mikeala. “The only two ways I could have gone to college were to apply for scholarships — which are usually limited to students who are permanent residents — or apply only to private universities, but those schools tend to be more selective.”

Thanks to new legislation, undocumented students in Virginia may finally be able to afford to attend college in the Commonwealth. 

The senate passed Senate Bill 935 on Tuesday by a narrow margin of 21-19, which would allow undocumented immigrants to become eligible for in-state tuition rates at public universities. The House of Delegates passed identical legislation on Tuesday by a vote of 56-44.

Under the legislation, students are eligible for in-state tuition rates regardless of their immigration status. They’ll receive the rates if they attended high school for at least two years in Virginia, and either graduated from high school or passed a high school equivalency exam.

“[Virginia] has high level immigration from across the world, and a lot of those students are motivated to succeed because the country they came from didn’t give them the same opportunities,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan immigration think tank, Virginia has an estimated undocumented population of 269,000 people. An estimated 25,000 undocumented Virginia residents ages 3 to 17 are enrolled in school, but just 48,000 undocumented residents have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Virginia is commonly recognized as having a quality education system. The U.S. News and World Report ranked the Commonwealth #8 for K-12 schools and #14 for higher education. Some of Virginia’s top universities include Washington and Lee University, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and Virginia Commonwealth University as the #1 public arts school in the country.

“If your parents are struggling because they’ve never had opportunities, there’s a much bigger incentive to go and work hard to go to college,” said Keam. “I think that adds tremendously to the quality of our schools.” 

Many Republican legislators voted against the bill, expressing concern that it unfairly favors undocumented students over other out-of-state students — and may present issues with the Commonwealth’s education budget. 

“We’ve made a determination to not give this to West Virginians or North Carolinans, but this bill provides it for someone here illegally,” said Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Forest. “I hope that they would go through the visa program to get their education, and become a contributing member to our economy.” 

Proponents of the legislation contend that not only will it benefit the state’s education budget, but also the local economy in the long run.  

“Maybe we’re losing revenue by not investing in them,” said Keam. “Immigrants already pay taxes, but if these students succeed with an education, they’ll end up staying in Virginia and pay more in state taxes long-term.” 

Other advocates view the legislation as a human rights matter: that every student should be given equal opportunity in life, despite their circumstances.

“It’s important we don’t view [undocumented immigrants] as one-sided for their economic contributions,” said Mikeala. “They are humans trying to achieve their dreams, and they deserve the same opportunities as others.” 

Gov. Northam has previosly voiced support for legislation in favor of the undocumented community. Northam vetoed Republican-backed bills in 2019 that would have banned sanctuary city policies. 

The General Assembly has advanced similar legislation this session, including giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses. Making college more affordable, along with an increase in education spending, is also part of Northam’s Virginia 2020 Plan.

“This highlights that the federal government has failed on immigration,” said Newman. “States are dealing with the broken federal government, and I hope these bills will push them to make better immigration laws.” 

Zach Armstrong

Zach Armstrong

Zach Armstrong is a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University majoring in Mass Communications and minoring in Political Science. Zach aspires to be a journalist because, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, it “uses the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon.” He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and his hobbies include playing guitar and reading.

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