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Virginia Inches Closer to Allowing In-State Tuition for Undocumented Students

Legislation, modeled after federal DREAM Act, moved forward Tuesday night.

A bill that would allow certain undocumented students to receive in-state college tuition in Virginia cleared a key legislative hurdle Tuesday night and could see further consideration Wednesday morning.

"This has been a very good day for this issue," state Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, told Patch late Tuesday. "I'm overjoyed that it's gotten this far. But the fact is that we've got a lot of work to do still. And I'm going to continue working with Republicans and Democrats to hopefully bring this home."

Lopez introduced legislation modeled after the federal DREAM Act. Lawmakers on Tuesday combined it with a similar bill put forth by Del. Tom Rust, a Herndon Republican and chairman of the House Higher Education Subcommittee, and recommended it to the full Education Committee on a bipartisan 6-0 vote.

He said he worked with Rust on combining and editing the legislation "so it would pass muster with as many people as possible."

The legislation states a person who is in the United States illegally may be eligible for in-state tuition if he or she has been approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; has graduated from a public or private high school in Virginia or received General Education Development (GED) certificate; and has begun the process of becoming a citizen. Students must also prove their residency and that they've filed Virginia income tax returns.

Similar bills have died in subcommittee in the past.

This year, though, the proposed legislation enjoyed the support of chambers of commerce in Fairfax, Reston and Herndon, along with George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, Virginia Tech and Norfolk State University.

The Virginia bill cleared its first hurdle on the same day President Barack Obama traveled to Las Vegas to call for comprehensive immigration reform, and at a time when bipartisan support for such reform is higher than it's been in years.

"There's large immigrant populations in everybody's districts — and that's growing," Lopez said. "These are people's neighbors. These are people's friends. Members are meeting them every day. They're meeting them in their community. They're going to their stores. It's more of a personal connection, and that's changing people's hearts and minds."

Lopez said the matter, in part, was an economic development issue.

Virginia invests in undocumented children through the 12th grade. Upon graduation, those students either secure tuition in other states — taking their talent with them, as many don't come back — or lose hope and become a burden on the social safety net, Lopez said.

"We need to be bringing talent to Virginia," he said. "And what is more embracing of that than investing in these kids that we've already worked with?"

Twelve other states have laws on the books similar to what's being considered in Virginia — including Texas, Utah and Colorado.

Still, the proposed law here sets a "very high bar," Lopez said.

"It's not going to (affect) tens of thousands. It's going to be a smaller number," he said. "But it provides hope. It provides an avenue, an opportunity that has not existed for these kinds of extraordinary students."

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, has filed similar legislation in the state Senate.

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