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2011 February 7 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : Va. To Consider Banning Illegal Immigrants from Colleges

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia legislators once again will consider whether to bar illegal immigrants from enrolling in the state’s public colleges and universities.

Del. Christopher Peace’s bill would amend state law to explicitly prohibit people who are in the United States illegally from being admitted to Virginia’s public two-year or four-year institutions. Federal law prohibits such people from paying in-state tuition at colleges and universities, but they can still pursue a public college education.

Virginia’s public two- and four-year institutions currently have the discretion to decide whether to admit illegal aliens as long as they charge them out-of-state tuition.

“The reason why we should bring some uniformity to the policy is rooted in the greater issue: How do we create incentives and disincentives for people to be here legally?” said Peace, a Republican.

Virginia Tech bases admissions decisions primarily on applicants’ academic credentials and requires proof of citizenship of those seeking in-state tuition rates, spokesman Mark Owczarski said. It’s possible that an undocumented student with a strong academic record could enroll as an out-of-state student at the Blacksburg school, but the student would be ineligible to receive state or federal financial aid or to work on campus.

“Therefore, no such student would displace a Virginia student, as Virginia Tech carefully monitors and maintains its in-state/out-of-state ratio,” Owczarski said.

Elsewhere, South Carolina has closed public colleges to undocumented students, Georgia has barred them from several schools and Alabama has prohibited them from its community colleges.

Several earlier attempts in Virginia to pass similar legislation haven’t succeeded, including a bill Peace introduced in 2008. But he thinks it’s a good time to revisit the issue as part of a larger effort to take a harder line on illegal immigration, which he says continues to worsen.

Peace also noted that “it’s an election year, and we need to know where people stand with regard to illegal immigration. None of us wants to get into the emotional side of the issue, but do we believe that the taxpayers should be paying to support illegals?”

He also cited the defeat in Congress of the Dream Act, which would have provided a pathway for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented residents to legal status through college enrollment or military service. Critics claimed its passage would have encouraged more illegal immigration.

While Virginia is considering keeping undocumented students out of public colleges, several states have expanded educational access over the last decade. Since 2001, 11 states have passed laws to allow undocumented students who meet specific requirements to pay in-state tuition at public schools, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hispanic groups say that attempts to restrict undocumented students from pursuing higher education would penalize people for trying to improve the families’ lives and become productive members of society.

“In today’s competitive global arena, it’s important that Virginia allows universal access to higher education,” said Michel Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Virginia and the U.S. are falling behind internationally in fields like math, science and engineering, and restricting universal access to education only restricts our progress as a nation.”

Virginia’s Community College System spokesman Jeffrey Kraus says the state’s two-year schools follow federal and state laws regarding student residency.

But because 94 percent of the system’s students are state residents, “we think any change to the law would have a minimal impact on our colleges.”

The General Assembly will also consider include measures that would allow all ROTC cadets to pay in-state tuition; make it easier for military service members to pursue higher education; and waive one-year residency requirements for veterans to become eligible for in-state tuition.

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