Ambar Pinto is a young Virginian with big dreams. She's smart, articulate and
ambitious. After college, she plans to run her own hotel. And later, add a
chain of boutiques all over the country.
First, the 19-year old from Fairfax County needs a degree in international business. But an Ivy League school is out of reach for Pinto. She is an undocumented immigrant who does not qualify for in-state tuition.
"I love Virginia, and I want to contribute to my community. But I can't get credit, I can't apply for any benefits and I can't afford to pay that much tuition," she said.
Pinto takes classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where she says she pays up to $2,500 per credit per semester. Her only hope to expedite her education and make it affordable at the same time is immigration reform.
But Pinto and many other undocumented immigrants in Virginia -- most of them Latinos -- have some allies in the General Assembly who believe that such reform is imminent.
One of them, Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, D-Arlington, is spearheading a bipartisan effort in the House to pass legislation that would allow eligible students to get in-state tuition. The Lopez proposals essentially are inspired by the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which has languished in Congress for years.
"We have a duty in Virginia to educate all children K through 12. We have a duty to invest in them," Lopez said. "But we pay for them until 12th grade and then we tell them they can't go further."
Lopez was elected to the House of Delegates in 2011. The DREAM Act was the first bill he introduced in 2012 -- but the measure wasn't even heard on the subcommittee level. Lopez said he made a promise that he would keep trying until the bill passes.
The renewed push in Virginia comes as President Barack Obama prepares to launch a new bid to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
It also comes in the aftermath of a 2012 presidential election in which Obama again carried this increasingly diverse state. Obama carried 64 percent of the Hispanic vote in Virginia and 66 percent of the Asian vote, according to exit polls reported by The New York Times.
When Obama announced in June that his administration would stop deporting young illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria previously proposed under the DREAM Act, Lopez and his supporters saw it as a sign of hope.
Virginia wouldn't be the first state to take on this issue. In November, the Maryland DREAM Act was approved by statewide ballot, winning 59 percent of the vote. Other states that have passed similar legislation are Texas, California, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Washington, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
This year, Lopez has introduced two almost identical measures, House Bills 1934 and 2159. Both would provide in-state college tuition to undocumented students as long as they graduated from a Virginia high school, have lived in the state for at least three years, and have parents who have paid taxes here for the same amount of time.
Applicants also have to sign an affidavit that they have begun the process of becoming a permanent legal resident and are in the process of applying to an institution of higher education. "My bills are very high-bar,"
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