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Herring To Extend In-State Tuition To 'DREAMers,' Drawing GOP Criticism

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has drawn criticism for saying he won't defend the state's gay marriage ban and his announcement that he would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has drawn criticism for saying he won't defend the state's gay marriage ban and his announcement that he would extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says Virginia colleges will now be able to grant in-state tuition to students who were previously considered ineligible because of their immigration status.

Until now, the attorney general's office has advised that students who entered the country illegally were barred from receiving in-state tuition, even if they were children when they immigrated. Now Herring says students can qualify for the reduced tuition under a special immigration status created by the Obama administration for certain some people brought to the country as children.

Maryland voters approved a similar extension of in-state tuition in a referendum in November.

"The irony is rich and not lost on me that one who campaigned on depoliticizing the office has hyper-politicized the office," says state Sen. Thomas Garrett (R-Louisa).

Garrett says Herring is more concerned about setting himself up for a campaign for governor than the best interest of Virginia. He and other Republicans say they are concerned about what they see as a willingness to ignore and circumvent the law.

But Jon Liss, director of the advocacy group Tenants and Workers United, believes Republican opposition may be based on something else.

"Increasingly, there's sort of a hostile basically racist tone against immigrants coming from certain sectors of the Republican Party," Liss says.

University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst Kyle Kondik says the attorney general's decision is yet another piece of evidence that the hotly contested race for attorney general, which ended in a recount, was one of the most influential races on the ballot last year.

"Pretty clearly, on a number of hot button issues including gay marriage and immigration, Mark Herring has made decisions that I think Mark Obenshain wouldn't have," Kondik says.

Back in January, Herring prompted calls for impeachment after announcing he would not defend Virginia's constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. Now conservatives are once again questioning the attorney general's respect for his oath of office.

Herring in his own words

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring joined WAMU's Matt McCleskey this morning to talk about the decision. Here are some excerpts:

Some states, like Maryland, have laws, often called DREAM Acts, that specifically allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition. Explain your rationale for making this move given that there's no such a law in Virginia.

"I've gotten a lot of questions from legislators and business leaders who see this as workforce readiness and competitiveness issue... I looked at it carefully, I analyzed the law. Under state law, I concluded that all college-bound students who are domiciled in Virginia qualify for in-state tuition, including those students who were brought here as children of undocumented families. A lot of states have done this legislatively, some have done it through referendum, and some have done it administratively under the guidance from their state's attorney general."

What do you make of the position, that this decision circumvents the law, and how do you as Attorney General decide to go against what the General Assembly has done?

What I was doing was actually following state law and applying students who fit this category to existing state law. And it's what the law requires. As attorney general, all of my actions have been and will always continue to be within the law. That is what, as attorney general, I am required to do. We provide objective legal advice to all the state agencies, boards and commissions, including colleges and universities of the state. Most of the time when we provide that advice on a daily basis, it doesn't get all that much attention because it's more routine, but this touches on a more controversial issue. But that's what's required under state law and it's also the right thing to do."

"I heard from some students yesterday who were just thrilled, because they said it's going to change their lives. These are kids who were brought here as a child. They played youth sports here, they went through high school, middle school, many of them elementary school. They sat in the classroom side by side with other Virginia students, and it doesn't make any sense for these talented, hard-working kids who want to go to school, who want to climb the ladder of success and achieve the American dream, to tell them at 12th grade that their hopes and dreams are going to be curtailed."

Given that you won your seat as attorney general in a very close election, do you worry about whether your decisions represent the views of all or most Virginians?

"First of all, my focus is on doing what's right and what's required under the law. But I think not only with the marriage equality issue, but making sure that these students are able to continue their education is a growing consensus among Virginia and is the right thing to do. So while everything that I'm doing in the office is within the law and following the light, it's also the right thing to do as a matter of public policy and for these kids."


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