Wednesday, September 3, 2003

A group of Hispanic illegal immigrants sued seven state colleges and universities yesterday in federal court, claiming the schools denied them admission because of their immigration status.

The lawsuit, made public yesterday, says the schools’ presidents and rectors are following ill-conceived legal advice from state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who last fall issued an opinion recommending that all Virginia colleges deny admission to illegal immigrants and suggesting that admissions officers report potentially illegal applicants to federal authorities.

The schools are George Mason University, James Madison University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the Northern Virginia Community College system and the College of William & Mary.

Andres Tobar, co-chairman of the Immigrant Legal Rights Coalition, said Mr. Kilgore’s policy punishes hundreds of high school students whose illegal status is no fault of their own, inasmuch as they were brought to the United States by their parents.

“We can’t deny a whole generation of students the rights to an education,” he said. “As you know, it takes eight to 10 years to open the doors to be legal … [but now students] in fifth, sixth, eighth, and 10th grade are seeing the doors [to education] being closed.”

Marlinda Palpido, of Alexandria, agreed. Mrs. Palpido, 33, said she wouldn’t be where she is now if she hadn’t graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering in 1996. Mrs. Palpido was an illegal immigrant until she got married in 1997.

“I am now working as an engineer as a Navy contractor, but if they had closed the doors, I would probably be a nanny or a cook,” she said.

Mr. Kilgore said through a spokesman that he will defend the schools.

“It seems as if they are attempting to force Virginia colleges and universities to accept illegal aliens,” spokesman Timothy Murtaugh said. Mr. Kilgore, a Republican, was out of town on business yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Five of the six plaintiffs are identified only as Jane Doe I, II and III and John Doe I and II, and either attend or have graduated from Virginia public high schools. The other plaintiff is Equal Access Education, a group of Northern Virginia immigrants and their families and friends.

The identities of the five students, all of whom are natives of Central and South American countries, were not revealed because none of them are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, according to the lawsuit.

The students’ attorneys said in a written statement that some of the students affected by Mr. Kilgore’s stance have Social Security numbers and work authorizations and pay federal and state taxes.

Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said some of them hold Temporary Protective Status visas, but had not been granted permanent residence. MALDEF is a civil rights organization that is spearheading the lawsuit.

Larry Hincker, associate vice president of university relations for Virginia Tech, said the university would not have denied admission to students based on their immigration status. But he said students would have been ineligible to enroll until they presented proper documentation proving legal residence.

Pam Lebley, a spokeswoman for VCU, said her school did not admit illegal immigrants without proper documentation.

Officials from the five other schools referred calls to Mr. Kilgore’s office.

Ms. Tallman said Mr. Kilgore’s opinion usurps the role of federal immigration authorities, as delegated by Congress.

Mr. Murtaugh said Virginia is not trying to set immigration policy, but rather to ensure everyone follows the law. “These anonymous plaintiffs are readily admitting they are not following the law,” he said. “It’s unfair to those who have followed the process legally.”

There are no hard numbers on how many illegal immigrants graduate from Virginia schools each year. Immigration advocates said the number is “in the hundreds, not the thousands.”

The MALDEF lawsuit does not address the issue of requiring undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition.

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