Compromise sought on state tuition plan

The question of whether non-citizens should be allowed to pay in-state tuition rates in Virginia could be a big fight this session if a compromise is not reached.

Republicans have sought measures to deny in-state tuition to all persons unlawfully in the country, months after Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore sent a letter to state colleges and universitiesdirecting them not admit illegal aliens and charge foreign nationals out-of-state tuition.

Gov. Mark R. Warner formed a task forceshortly after that ruling was issued. It meets today for the first time.

Democrats say the clamp-down is rushed and hurts students who legitimately should go to school and receive in-state tuition.

Much of the support and opposition to the tuition question comes from Northern Virginia with large immigrant populations.

In Prince William, 10 percent of its population is Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census, representing a threefold incease over 10 years. Manassas and Manassas Park are both 15 percent Hispanic, representing a threefold and fivefold increase for each city, respectively.

Northern Virginia Community College serves a lot of immigrants, so its officials are lobbying Richmond for the ability to give immigrants in-state tuition.

Sen. Jay O’Brien, R-39th District, introduced a bill to deny in-state tuition to non-citizens. He backed off that position Thursday before the Senate Education and Health Committee’s Subcommittee on Higher Education, asking that his bill be delayed a week for rewrite.

“In one stroke if you deny it to all foreign nationals, you’re affecting thousands of students, potential students, grad students If it’s more delineated, there could be more categories that are accepted but would still follow the attorney general’s ruling,” O’Brien said.

Advocates have fought strongest for exceptions to allow students who came into the country with their parents and graduated from public high schools.

“Now they have an opportunity to go to college. It would be almost sacriligious to deny them that opportunity, to consider out-of-state tuition for them, it would be 400 times the cost,” said Andres Tobar, co-chairman of the Immigrant Educational Rights Coalition, to the subcommittee.

“You say it’s unfair to penalize them for what their parents did years ago?” asked Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-35th District, chairman of the subcommittee.

“Yes. Some people make the argument that these people do not pay taxes but they do,” Tobar said.

“Oh, I know they do,” Saslaw said.

But what defines a legal case for in-state tuition, O’Brien asked later in an interview.

“What’s legitimate? They say legitimate. They may feel they’re entitled, the question is what is legal?” he asked.

Arlington Delegate Karen Darner, D-49th District, said it is a question of morality.

“When you have kids, you don’t punish them for what the parents’ decision was,” she said. “They’ve paid taxes while they’ve been here. The kids have gone to public schools, so when they graduate from a high school in Virginia they should be seen as every other kid.”

Republicans in Congress could come to the rescue of state Democrats like Darner by clearing up the law and doing away with battling interpretations.

Darner said bills by Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and House will do essentially what her bill does in allowing in-state tuition for certain foreign nationals. Rep. Tom Davis, R-11th District, is signed on to the Houseversion.

A Davis spokesman did not return calls Wednesday and Thursday.

Northern Virginia Community College President Robert Templin said the latest bills taking shape nowallow children who come up through public schools to get in-state tuition.

O’Brien did not confirm that. He said the bill is still being worked on, emphasizing the law must be followed and taxpayers protected.

“You’re family of a Saudi sheik, but you’re here at George Mason University. They could be loaded with money. The fact that they’re here with a student visa — does that entitle them as a resident of Virginia to in-state tuition?”

Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached at (804) 649-8710.

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