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UPDATE: U-Va. Accepts Residency Claim


Ever since he was a little boy in Virginia, Nelson Lopez has wanted to go to the state's flagship university. But last month he worried when University of Virginia officials followed up on his application, asking him to prove that his parents were legal residents to qualify as an in-state applicant. He's a U.S. citizen, born here, but his parents are illegal immigrants from El Salvador.

After his story ran in The Washington Post, he got a flurry of calls from lawyers and immigrant advocates offering to help. Now, it looks like he won't need help: Last week he got a letter from U-Va. telling him he will be considered a Virginia resident for his application.

That means that he qualifies for the much lower in-state tuition, that he won't face the steeper odds for admission for out-of-state students and that he doesn't have to worry about having the same problem at other schools.

When Lopez saw the letter at home in Alexandria, he was scared to open it. "I just knew it was a big deal," he said. But when he read it, he was speechless for a moment. "I was so excited. This changes everything!"

Andrea Leeds Armstrong of U-Va.'s committee on Virginia status wouldn't discuss the case but said: "The attorney general's memo shed further light on the situation. It did make it clearer."

The state attorney general's office, responding to a question from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia this month, emphasized that there could be exceptions to the general rule. State law requires college officials to look at parents' legal status since students are considered dependent until age 24, so parents here illegally would not be considered Virginia residents. But the law allows case-by-case exceptions for students 18 and older, the memo explained, who can provide evidence that they are state residents and should be considered separately from their parents.

"I think in circumstances where an applicant has spent his or her life in Virginia, has been educated in Virginia schools, has gotten his or her driver's license in Virginia -- even though financially dependent on their parents -- that individual has done all that he or she could do at that age to establish a domicile independent of their parents. I think the memo was helpful to us in pointing the way," Armstrong said.

When Lopez got the letter, "he was very, very happy. He kept saying, 'I can't believe it! I can't believe it!' " said Krishna Leyva, director of a mentoring program at T.C. Williams High School. "There are a lot of kids out there in the same situation, but they don't pursue it" because they don't want to endanger their parents or risk problems with the admissions office. "He really, really wants to go to U-Va."

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