December 17, 2013
Even though Ramiro Morales has lived in Charlottesville for more than half of his life and graduated from Monticello High School this past spring, the 20-year-old is forced to pay tuition rates that are more than two times higher than his classmates at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Morales is one of seven immigrant students who filed a lawsuit against the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia over tuition rates. All of the plaintiffs are part of the federal government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Under DACA, students who were brought here illegally as children can avoid deportation if they are enrolled in school, have a clean record and meet other criteria. They can also get Social Security numbers, apply for driver’s licenses and have the right to work. It does not provide a path to citizenship and must be renewed every two years. Under current law in the commonwealth, students who benefit from DACA do not qualify for in-state tuition.
Morales is hoping the lawsuit will change those laws. He works full time at a Subway chain while taking classes at PVCC. His dream is to become a chef and open his own Mexican-infused restaurant in Charlottesville. But those dreams are a long way off. Morales can only afford to take one or two classes each semester and thinks it will be three or four years before he can graduate.
"I can't take as many (classes) as I want to because I can't afford them right now, " Morales said. He pays the out-of-state tuition rate of $328.25 per credit-hour. That's more than twice the cost for in-state tuition.
"These are students who grew up in Virginia, graduated from Virginia high schools, they have enrolled in one of Virginia's public colleges, but they are being made to pay out of state tuition which is putting a great financial burden on them and their families," said Tim Freilich, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the seven students.
At the heart of the lawsuit is whether the students can prove "domiciliary intent", meaning the intent to live remain in Virginia indefinitely. If so, the immigrant students would qualify for in-state tuition.
"We believe they have every intent to remain indefinitely and certainly should be eligible for in-state tuition along with their Virginia classmates," Freilich said.
For Morales, this lawsuit is bigger than him and his own dreams. He thinks of his younger sister, who is in the midst of her senior year at Monticello High School and would like to attend college next fall.
"This is not just for me," Morales said. "It's for the rest of my friends and family members. My sister is coming up too so it's going to be a lot harder for me and my family."
This lawsuit may not have to be settled in a courtroom. Several legislative bills were introduced last General Assembly session on the issue but never gained much ground. Freilich is hoping new legislation will be introduced this January when lawmakers reconvene.
"We should send these students a strong message that we want them to continue their education and that we value their contributions to Virginia," Freilich said. "We should be doing everything we can to increase their access to higher education, not throwing up unnecessary obstacles."