Like many first-generation Latinas, Natalia Villalobos hoped to attend college upon graduating from high school in 2015. But unlike her fellow U.S.-born peers, the 19-year-old was denied aid because of her mother's immigration status.
Despite being born and raised in Washington, D.C., Villalobos, who is of Salvadoran descent, wasn't given a city tuition grant, which she needs to pay for classes at Montgomery College, because her mother is neither a U.S. citizen nor a legal resident.
“I was shocked,” Villalobos told the Washington Post. “Honestly, I thought, how can that be? I’m a U.S. citizen. I should have the same rights as every other citizen. This decision shouldn’t be based on my mom’s status.”
Last week, Villalobos, backed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) program discriminates against U.S. citizens with immigrant parents, including those living in the United States legally. According to the lawsuit, DCTAG’s rules prevent Villalobos from obtaining much-needed public aid, which could stop her from attending school, where she wants to study business and child development to open up a daycare.
The young woman and her lawyers are also concerned about what this means for U.S. citizenship and equal opportunity.
“The issues are clear and alarming,” Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at MALDEF, told the newspaper. “You have a U.S. citizen student who just wants the same chance that everyone else has. Legally, when we start chipping away at what it means to be a United States citizen, we undermine the core principles of our nation.”
The lawsuit was filed against Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). While a spokesperson for Bowser’s office declined to comment on it because the lawsuit is pending, he did say that D.C. residents “should understand that the city remains committed to its stand as a sanctuary city where no person, regardless of immigration status, should fear interaction with any government agency.”