Every day last summer, Juan de la Rosa Diaz worked at a Mexican restaurant on Midlothian Turnpike in Richmond, Virginia, waiting tables to help pay for his education.
But the 19-year-old political science major at Virginia Tech said he could be forced to drop out if legislation pending in the General Assembly — that would deny in-state tuition to immigrants granted temporary protected status — becomes law.
“Right now, I can afford it, but just barely. I have to work really hard,” de la Rosa Diaz said. “But if this bill passes, I wouldn’t be able to continue my education.”
Under S.B. 722, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun County, de la Rosa Diaz’s current per-semester tuition rate would more than double, to $30,000 per year — unaffordable for the Chesterfield County resident, whose parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 9.
On Thursday, Black’s Bill cleared the Senate Education and Health Committee on a party-line 8-7 vote.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vowed to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk. Spokesman Brian Coy on Thursday said the governor views the proposal as “counterproductive and mean-spirited.”
But as the General Assembly got underway last week, the tuition issue emerged as the first flash point of an election year session in which all 140 seats — 40 in the state Senate, 100 in the House — will be up for election in November.
The election, particularly the fight for control of the closely divided Senate, could feature several competitive contests in the state’s increasingly diverse population centers in Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond and Hampton Roads.
Black’s measure is designed to counter a determination from Attorney General Mark Herring, who declared in April that children of undocumented immigrants who are lawfully present in the United States and Virginia under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program qualify for in-state college tuition.
A similar proposal, H.B. 1356, sponsored by Del. David Ramadan, R-Loudoun County, is pending in the House Committee on Education.
“It is my belief that it is wrong to give preferred treatment to people who are here unlawfully,” Black said Friday. “It may not be the most popular thing to say in today’s political climate, but I think we need to focus on the citizens of Virginia and take care of them first.”
Black said he disagrees with the DACA program, which he said gives “preferential treatment to aliens who are unlawfully in the country, especially in regards to in-state tuition.”
In June 2012, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would defer deportation for young people who came to this country illegally as children.
“The deferred action status is something that Obama did enact without lawful authority,” Black said. “That is interesting, because there seems to be some division in the federal government about that.”
About 11,000 young people in Virginia have had their applications for DACA approved to date.
Students applying for in-state tuition in Virginia must gain admission to an institution of higher education, maintain their DACA status and meet the same residency requirements as all other students.
They must also show permanent residency in the state by providing documents, such as tax, employment or property records, receipt of a driver’s license, or motor vehicle registration.
Black said he supports the “former rationale” that barred “students who are here unlawfully” from access to in-state tuition rates.
“Americans should receive as much consideration as people who are here illegally,” he said.
Democrats decried Black’s proposal.
Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax County, said on the House floor Friday that she was disappointed to see a bill progress that “in fact explicitly discriminates against one small section of Virginia college students by charging them nearly three times the amount that other Virginia college students are charged.”
Kory added that she hopes that the bill “does not have a very long life.”
Kory has introduced H.B. 1478, which declares that, absent congressional intent to the contrary, anyone granted deferred action status “has the capacity to intend to remain in Virginia indefinitely” and is eligible for in-state tuition.
Localities in Virginia have long been required to pay for the K-12 education for these children, said Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington.
“The kids graduate, and before the attorney general’s decision, we put up a big roadblock and said, ‘You can’t go further.’
“What about those kids who do incredibly well? We basically say we don’t want their talent, their ideas and the jobs that they are going to create.”