Children of illegal immigrants should get in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, according to legal guidance issued Tuesday by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
In a letter to presidents of state colleges and universities, as well as the chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, Herring writes that students who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, frequently called DREAMers, can qualify for in-state tuition in Virginia under current law.
The decision by Herring again thrusts the newly elected attorney general into the political spotlight on a hot-button issue. Earlier this year, Herring made waves for refusing to defend the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in federal court, instead deciding to side with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to get the ban overturned.
"If the Commonwealth is to remain competitive in a global economy, we must embrace a strategy that maximizes our talent pool and helps all Virginians reach their full potential," Herring said in a statement released from his office.
"These 'DREAMers' are already Virginians in some very important ways. In most cases they were raised here, they graduated from Virginia schools, and they have known no home but Virginia," Herring said.
"Instead of punishing and placing limits on these smart, talented, hard-working young people, Virginia should extend them an opportunity for an affordable education. It's what the law requires, it makes economic sense for Virginia, and it's the right thing to do."
Herring said 19 other states have this policy. Some were put into place by legislative action, some by voter referendum and others as he has done, by interpreting state and federal law in the light of the federal government's creation of deferred action status for young people.
But his legal advisement was quickly met with strong disapproval from the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates.
"We are deeply concerned by the Attorney General's actions today and what appears to be a continued willingness to ignore and circumvent the duly-adopted laws of the Commonwealth," the group wrote Tuesday morning in a joint statement.
"For the second time since taking office just a few short months ago, Mark Herring has demonstrated blatant disregard for his oath of office, his responsibilities as Attorney General of Virginia, and most importantly, the rule of law. Attorney General Herring has once again placed his personal, political ideology ahead of the will of the people and their elected representatives."
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is a federal policy aimed at stopping deportations of children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
The ACLU of Virginia said the legal advice from Herring would have positive economic incentives for the state.
"Providing Virginia's DACA students with the opportunity to apply for in-state tuition rates will also provide economic benefits to the Commonwealth," the group said in a statement.
"Every year Virginia loses more than $7.5 million in state and local taxes by failing to provide a post-secondary education to DACA students. The average college graduate pays approximately $2,100 more in Virginia state and local income taxes than someone with a high school degree," the ACLU of Virginia said in its release.
The College of William and Mary said the legal advisement would be beneficial to eligible students.
"Today's opinion will allow us to make a William & Mary education more affordable for the small group of students we admitted who have a federally recognized status and who have achieved at the highest levels in their Virginia high schools. We know these students will thrive here if W&M is placed within their reach financially," said Henry Broaddus, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at William and Mary.
Lori Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Christopher Newport University, said no current CNU students were affected by the legal guidance.
Steven Felker, director of research and effectiveness at Thomas Nelson Community College, said it was unclear how many students would be directly affected by the advisement.
"As of today, some 2.9 percent of students at Thomas Nelson — 315 of individuals — pay out-of-state tuition, so we would expect the number of students to be personally affected by today's announcement to be no more than that number," Felker said.
Glenn DuBois, chancellor of Virginia Community College System, praised the announcement but acknowledged it "is likely not the end of the political debate on this matter."
"Today's announcement by the attorney general will likely bring more people to Virginia's Community Colleges. Our mission is to bolster the Commonwealth of Virginia by serving its people and we embrace every opportunity we get to do just that," DuBois said.
Staff writers Travis Fain and Christine Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Bogues at 757-247-4536.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun