By Michael Melkonian
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Tuesday narrowly defeated a bill to deny in-state tuition to so-called “DREAM-ers” — young adults who immigrated illegally to the U.S. as children.
Senate Bill 722 failed by a vote of 19-20 after Republican Sen. John Watkins of Midlothian joined with the 19 Democratic senators in opposing the measure.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Black, R-Leesburg, would have added language to state law to deny in-state tuition to college students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. These are young people who as children were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
The Senate is made up of 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats. Republican Sen. Jill Vogel of Winchester left the floor and abstained from the vote. Rappahannock County’s Senate representative Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) voted in favor of the bill.
A number of Democrats spoke in opposition of the bill, including Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington. She said DACA-approved students make up less than 1 in 1,000 students receiving in-state tuition.
“What this bill does is establish a class of citizens who do not have access to higher education,” Favola said. “These are citizens who are lawfully present in our country and in the commonwealth, and these are citizens who have worked very, very hard.”
Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, said that of the more than 350,000 undergraduates in Virginia public colleges and universities, only 81 have DACA status and pay in-state tuition. Saslaw said all of their families are paying taxes to Virginia.
“Let me tell you, we don’t want to go on record as a state Senate putting a bill like this on the books,” Saslaw said.
Here is how the Senate voted Tuesday on SB 722.
Floor: 01/20/15 Senate: Read third time and defeated by Senate (19-Y 20-N)
YEAS — Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Wagner — 19.
NAYS — Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Petersen, Puller, Saslaw, Watkins, Wexton — 20.
NOT VOTING — Vogel — 1.
Republican Sen. Tom Garrett from Lynchburg spoke in favor of Black’s bill, saying the root of the problem is the federal decision to create DACA status. Garrett said because of the federal government’s “abdication” of responsibility to immigration reform, all Virginians, including DACA students, become the victims.
“The federal government owes every one of us on both sides of the aisle a cohesive, coherent, meaningful immigration plan that will work and is sustainable,” Garrett said.
“Then we won’t be having this fight. But right now, in the interim, our duty is to look out for the commonwealth of Virginia and the budget of the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Defending his bill, Black compared the legality of the DACA students to a speeder on the highway going 1 mph over the limit. They are technically acting illegally, but a trooper wouldn’t pull them over and try to get a conviction.
“You cannot bootstrap prosecutorial discretion, and turn that into a lawful act,” Black said.
The DACA-approved students are sometimes called DREAM-ers because they would have benefited from a proposed federal law called the DREAM Act. That stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.