Fredy Vasquez, 18, is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and has a 3.6 grade-point average.
After he graduates this June, by law, he’ll have to pay out-of-state tuition to go to college in Virginia because he came over from El Salvador with his parents five years ago and is not a U.S. citizen.
A House bill restating that law survived an attempt by Fairfax Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-35th District, to make an exception for Vasquez and others, similar to a Texas law.
Saslaw’s change would have allowed exceptions for students who graduated from a high school, lived in the state for five years and signed an affidavit stating their intention to begin the process of citizenship.
The Senate Education and Health Committee bypassed Saslaw’s change when it approved an 8-6 vote on a House bill that prohibits non-citizens from getting in-state tuition benefits on the grounds that it rewards illegal behavior.
Vasquez testified before the committee, in what was at times a contentious debate, and other immigrants shared personal stories. However, opponents said the bill would exacerbate illegal immigration.
In Virginia, the issue reverberates most loudly in Northern Virginia, with its large concentration of immigrants.
Northern Virginia Community College has lobbied Richmond to oppose the bill, estimating the law affects 100 people in Northern Virginia a year.
Prince William has seen its Hispanic population grow threefold in the last decade to 10 percent of its population.
On a national level, estimates run between 50,000 and 60,000 aliens annually have graduated from high school and have lived in the country longer than five years, said bill sponsor Norfolk Delegate Thelma Drake, R-87th District.
The bill is not targeted at children like Vasquez, who is still entitled to an education, she said, but the bill restates existing federal and state laws.
By state law, an illegal alien cannot show necessary intent to remain indefinitely in Virginia and therefore cannot qualify for in-state tuition, she said. Tax dollars should not go to educate persons with no ability to legally work in the United States, and people circumventing the system should not be rewarded when it takes six years for people who legally immigrate to bring their children, she said.
“Many of the children … go all the way through school and don’t know that they’re here illegally,” Saslaw said.
The parents pay taxes, and in some cases they pay more than citizens because they do not file tax returns, which require social security numbers, he said.
Saslaw gave the example of a 1-year-old child coming illegally to the country. If a sibling is born after the family immigrated “that sibling is a U.S. citizen forever the other brother — he’s got to jump through eight million hoops. Not because of his own fault, but because he came here with his parents,” he said.
Lynchburg Sen. Stephen Newman, R-23rd District, said the exception proposed by Saslaw would open up a large loophole because students could lie about their attempts to achieve citizenship. What happens when they are denied citizenship, he asked.
Mechanicsville Sen. Bill Bolling, R-4th District, said Saslaw is without broad support on his bill. Gov. Mark R. Warner has not taken a position on the bill, which has been up the entire session. Peter Blake, a deputy secretary of education, said Warner wants the issue examined, and studies will be ongoing this summer.