Virginia public universities can grant in-state tuition rates to potentially thousands of children of illegal immigrants, Attorney General Mark R. Herring said Tuesday, in a major reversal of state policy.
In a letter sent to public university and community college officials, Mr. Herring said he's concluded no state or federal law prevents children of illegal immigrants, who have been approved under a federal program that defers deportations, from qualifying for the typically much less expensive in-state tuition rates.
"In most cases they were raised here, they graduated from Virginia schools, and they have known no home but Virginia," Mr. Herring, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Instead of punishing and placing limits on these smart, talented, hard-working young people, Virginia should extend them an opportunity for an affordable education."
The attorney general's unilateral declaration bypasses the contentious political battles seen in other states that have passed versions of the Dream Act. It also comes after the Virginia General Assembly in February rejected its own version of the legislation.
The move drew swift backlash from Republicans, who have criticized Mr. Herring for saying in January that he would not defend the state's voter-approved constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and that he would actively work to overturn the law.
"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," said a group of Republican lawmakers that included Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford Republican.
Mr. Herring's opinion cited the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, which essentially created a new legal status for immigrants who came to the United States unlawfully as children and meet certain conditions. The attorney general reasoned that since the program confers legal status on them, they should be entitled to in-state tuition that comes with residency.
His office estimated that 8,100 people in Virginia have been approved through the program, which grants work permits and a stay of deportation for those who are 30 and younger and were brought to the United States illegally before they turned 16.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday he supports Mr. Herring's opinion and hopes that it becomes reality during his term in office.
"To grow a 21st Century economy, Virginia needs to be open and welcoming to all who call our Commonwealth home, and I am encouraged to see progress being made in this area during my administration," Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Seventeen other states, including Maryland, offer in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants.
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