Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Attorneys representing immigrants will file a lawsuit today against a number of public colleges and universities in Virginia, challenging state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore’s opinion that schools should deny admission to those who are here illegally.

The attorneys, one of whom is with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), argued in court documents that denying admission to students who are not U.S. citizens is unconstitutional.

The attorneys declined to offer any specific details about the lawsuit yesterday. They also would not identify the immigration status of their clients.

“I don’t want to get into the legal matters at this point,” said Tisha Tallman, regional counsel for MALDEF, which is spearheading the case. The lawsuit will be filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Ms. Tallman will be joined by David Orta, a partner in the D.C. offices of Arnold & Porter, whose pro-bono work specializes in immigration rights. Calls to his office for comment were not returned yesterday.

Timothy Murtaugh, a spokesman for Mr. Kilgore, said his office would defend any colleges and universities named in the suit. He stressed, however, that while it is Mr. Kilgore’s opinion illegal immigrants should not be admitted to Virginia colleges, the colleges and universities have the final say.

“The Attorney General believes as a matter of policy that illegal aliens should not be admitted to Virginia schools … and a number of schools said they did not do this in the first place,” Mr. Murtaugh said.

The lawsuit focuses on a memo written by Mr. Kilgore last fall, which stated that Virginia colleges should not admit illegal immigrants.

“Illegal or undocumented aliens should not be enrolled in Virginia public institutions of higher education,” Mr. Kilgore, a Republican, wrote in the Sept. 5 memo, which was distributed to the presidents and chancellors of Virginia’s 37 state colleges and universities.

The memo also stated that illegal immigrants, if admitted despite his position, should be denied in-state tuition benefits since they are not legal Virginia residents. An attempt to codify this policy as state law failed earlier this year when Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, vetoed legislation passed by the General Assembly targeting the issue.

Mr. Kilgore’s memo further stated that public employees who become aware of illegal immigrants on college campuses should notify the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well Mr. Kilgore’s office.

“‘Undocumented’ connotes a number of things,” said Ms. Tallman in a telephone interview from her office in Atlanta. “This opinion is actually preventing a wide range of otherwise qualified students from attending schools. If you are not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident, that appears to be the line where many [schools] are making the cut-off.”

Today’s lawsuit does not address the in-state tuition issue, Ms. Tallman said.

In a memo issued in November to the same college and university heads, Ms. Tallman questioned Mr. Kilgore’s legal premise in issuing the initial memo.

“The authority of Congress to regulate immigration may preclude [Mr. Kilgore] and state educators from reporting undocumented students, as well as denying them admission to their schools,” Ms. Tallman wrote. “The power to regulate immigration is a power that is exclusively held by the federal government.”

Mr. Kilgore’s “memorandum serves as a backbone for an unconstitutional immigration regulatory scheme,” she continued.

Marie Watteau, a MALDEF spokeswoman, said the lawsuit will target “seven or eight” of the major state schools, but declined to give names. She said the names will be made public today.

The main issue concerned the schools’ admissions policies, MALDEF officials said.

“Public institutions actually rescinded letters [of acceptance] to otherwise qualified students after that statement [from Mr. Kilgore],” Ms. Watteau said.

Mr. Murtaugh said Mr. Kilgore’s office was not aware of any such cases.

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