By Chris Suarez
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Virginia Senate legislation designed to give in-state tuition to undocumented childhood arrivals was defeated this past week by a Health and Education Committee vote of 6-7.
Senate Bill 249, patroned by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, and known as the Virginia DREAM Act, sparked heated rhetoric on whether state or federal legislators should be held responsible for immigration-related measures.
“Shame on the federal government and people from both parties,” said Sen. Thomas A. Garrett, R-Hadensville. “Whether it’s a failure to secure the borders or failure to acknowledge 12 million living, breathing human beings who are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I can’t vote on the bill because it’s unconstitutional. We can’t do this. It’s stupid.”
Republicans on the committee questioned the legal status of Virginia residents who’ve received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a memorandum that advises U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant undocumented people momentary pardon from being deported. The order was enacted by The Department of Homeland Security in 2012.
When the bill was first debated this month during the higher education subcommittee meeting, Sen. Ralph Smith, R-Roanoke, pointed out wording within the Homeland Security directive, which only provides, “relief from removal from the country,” but does not clarify lawful status.
“I understand Senator Garrett’s position, but I think it’s not well-founded,” McEachin said. “This legislation wasn’t made to confer citizenship. All we’re trying to do is give them access to the public university system at an in-state cost.”
Smith said undocumented arrivals could enroll in the commonwealth’s community college system as an alternative to enrolling immediately in a public four-year university.
Senate Democrats were unamused with that notion. McEachin said such a suggestion was “draconian,” and designates a number of residents as “second-class citizens,” because they would be financially barred from attending more prestigious in-state universities.
Members of the committee expressed frustration with similar measures repeatedly failing when introduced to the state legislature.
“We’ve been asking the federal government to do their job, but they’re not,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston. “Meanwhile, we have a generation of students who’ve been deprived of a reasonably priced, higher-quality education. How long do they have to wait for the federal government to do its job? I think it’s our obligation to step forward and do ours.”
Interest groups, such as the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, were vocal in their support of the bill. Many still are vested in the issue, planning to support similar legislation in the House of Delegates and looking toward next year.
American Civil Liberties Union paralegal Joseph Montana assured the ACLU’s support of the bill in the future, saying it is the commonwealth’s responsibility to support its residents and uphold social justice.
“If we wait around for someone else to do our work for us, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Montana said.
The official legal status of residents who’ve received federal deferred action is unclear, but Montana said he believes other Virginia statutes are evidence that a bill such as McEachin’s could exist and be constitutional.
“We weren’t asking for something that people with deferred action status don’t already have,” Montana said. “People with TPS (temporary protected status) are afforded in-state tuition and have the same rights as those with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status have. They’re allowed to have a driver’s license, they’re allowed to work in the United States and they’re lawfully present.”
Two other bills seeking in-state tuition await hearing in House committees. House Bills 59 and 88 are patroned by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, and Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, respectively..