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House To Vote on Scholarship Access for Undocumented Students

VCU campus
File Photo: The campus of Virginia Commonwealth University near Monroe Park in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM

The Virginia House is set to vote today on a bill to allow some undocumented students to apply for state financial assistance and scholarships.

The proposal follows a law changed last year that provides in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants living in Virginia. To qualify, an individual has to prove that they or their parents pay taxes and that they attended a Virginia high school for at least two years. Anyone who meets those qualifications would also be eligible to apply for state financial aid programs under the proposed bill. 

Del. Alfonso Lopez, the bill’s sponsor, said it could have a positive impact on more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants living in Virginia who pay nearly $150 million in taxes each year.

“Although those taxes help pay for Virginia’s entire education system, the vast majority of undocumented Virginia students are deprived of the same opportunity to access state-based financial aid as any other Virginia tax payer,” Lopez said. 

If the bill passes it would also allow undocumented students to be eligible for Governor Ralph Northam’s proposed G3 Program, which would p rovide tuition-free community college to some low- and middle-income Virginians.

Republicans in the House opposed the bill as it moved through the committee process. They’ve made arguments similar to the ones made against the law change to give some undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. 

Republican’s like Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) say citizens should get first priority.

Although half of undocumented immigrants are estimated to be tax payers, Miyares told WRIC last year, “The children of those paying the taxes that are subsidizing these colleges, they should be the first in line to be able to go to these schools and have a slot. I can’t imagine a child being denied a chance to go to their dream school because of the legislation we just passed.”

But advocates say the proposal is about giving everyone an equal opportunity at success, regardless of someone’s immigration status. 

Francesco Yepez, a Peruvian immigrant who came to the U.S. when he was nine years old, recently graduated from George Mason University. As a DACA recipient, Yepez was ineligible for in-state tuition as well as state and federal scholarships when he started at GMU. 

Yepez said he was lucky enough to get a private scholarship from the Dream Project, but he still had to work his way through school.

“Because I couldn’t get financial aid, I just had to work all the time,” he said. “I was studying full-time and teaching as a tutor. In between all that, I just barely had time to breath.”

Through advocacy work with the Dream Project, Yepez said he learned that his experience was not unique.

“I made an intentional decision to pick the job I enjoyed,” he said. “I know a lot of DACA students and Dream Project students who work at restaurants or work in construction or landscaping, and some of it is really tough manual labor so not everyone is as fortunate as me.” 

Yepez and other undocumented individuals are being supported in their advocacy work by more than 30 organizations that are part of the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights. 

They are making the case to lawmakers that immigrants living in Virginia are just as committed to contributing to the commonwealth as other residents.

“The whole purpose of all of [state scholarships] is that we don’t invest our money in the human potential of people who are here only to attend college at UVA or William and Mary, but that we are investing our taxpayer money in the human potential of people who are going to remain in this commonwealth for the long-term” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, head of the Legal Aid Justice Society’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “So there’s no reason that simply someone’s legal immigration status ought to be the defining line.”

The bill from Del. Lopez is expected to be voted on this afternoon when the House meets for its daily floor session. If passed by the full House, the bill will move on to the Senate where it will go through the committee process again. 

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