Attorney General Mark Herring on Tuesday instructed Virginia colleges to grant in-state tuition to potentially thousands of students who were previously considered ineligible because of their immigration status.

The policy change, announced in front of hundreds of cheering immigration advocates at Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus, is a change from the Democrat's Republican predecessors.

In the past, the attorney general's office had advised that students who entered the country illegally were barred from receiving in-state tuition, even if they were children when they immigrated.

Herring now says students can qualify for the reduced tuition under a special immigration status created by the Obama administration for certain young people brought to the U.S. as children.

The change, he said, will allow students who have lived in Virginia to continue their education and become productive members of the workforce "instead of punishing them for the way their parents brought them to the United States as children."

Herring said the change is immediate and applies to all public colleges in the state.

The change brought immediate condemnation from Republicans who control Virginia's House of Delegates. They had rejected legislation that would have done the same thing.

"These issues should be considered, discussed and eventually resolved through the legislative and democratic processes, not by the unilateral actions of one individual," House Republican leaders, including Speaker William Howell, said in a joint statement.

Whether students lacking legal status should receive in-state tuition has been an issue in Virginia and across the nation for more than a decade. In 2002, then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore advised Virginia colleges that they should not even admit illegal immigrants, and if they did, they were barred from granting those students in-state tuition.

In 2004, a federal judge in Alexandria tossed out a lawsuit attacking that policy.

Much has changed since then, however. In 2012, Obama created a special immigration status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), for immigrants between the ages of 15 and 32 who came to the U.S. before they turned 16. That status allows them to remain if they have graduated from high school or are enrolled as students and meet other conditions.

Herring said the new category amounts to lawful immigration status for those who hold it, and he is therefore empowered to implement the change. Herring's office estimated that 8,100 Virginia residents have obtained lawful status under the 2012 program and are now eligible for in-state tuition.

Herring said 19 states have taken similar action, either through state law or by administrative action.

The change will be particularly meaningful in northern Virginia, home to most of the state's immigrant population. Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, said that nearly half of all Virginia's Latino and Asian undergraduates are enrolled at either his school or at George Mason University.

GMU's president, Angel Cabrera, attended Tuesday's announcement, and said the inability to obtain in-state tuition was a "definite barrier" to affected students who want to enroll at GMU.

Dayana Torres, a sophomore at GMU who attends on a scholarship and now holds DACA status after coming to Virginia at the age of 9 from Colombia, said many of her friends take classes on a piecemeal basis, scraping up money to pay for community-college classes that cost three times as much for students who lack in-state status.

Templin said the change is important for what it symbolizes as well.

"It is a signal to all New Americans who live in Virginia that our state recognizes the importance of developing their talent for the benefit of all Virginia," he said.

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