The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is suing the District of Columbia on behalf of a U.S. citizen they say was denied college financial aid because her mother has temporary protected status.
Natalia Villalobos, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C., said she was twice denied financial aid from the District of Columbia Tuition Assistance Grant (DCTAG) - a program that provides college-bound residents living in D.C. up to $10,000 to help offset the cost of attending public colleges and universities - because her mother has Temporary Protected Status.
Villalobos' mother, a native of El Salvador, has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. She has had TPS since about 2001, when an earthquake struck her country that year, both Lopez and Villalobos said.
The federal government grants TPS to people who cannot return to their home countries because of environmental disasters, armed conflict or other conditions. Although the status is temporary, it can be renewed at the discretion of the president. In 2014, about 340,000 people were in the U.S. with Temporary Protected Status, according to the Migration Policy Center.
Burth Lopez, a MALDEF staff attorney, said Villalobos should be eligible to receive up to $2,500 a year from DCTAG to help her defray the college's $4,000-per-term cost.
In a federal lawsuit filed this week, MALDEF argues the district's policy is unconstitutional because it denies Villalovos equal protection of the laws and due process, making it unconstitutional. Lopez said TPS is excluded from DCTAG because according to the district government, they require a dependent student's guardian be a citizen or legal permanent resident.
"It's not fair to get discriminated as a U.S. citizen because of my mom's status," 19-year-old Villalobos told NBC News. She graduated from the district's Emerson Preparatory High School in 2015 and planned to attend Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland, soon after graduation, but had to postpone her studies because of the cost.
Fred Lewis, a spokesman for the District of Columbia's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), said the office does not comment on pending litigation, and did not answer queries on why TPS status is excluded.
"Regarding questions about a specific applicant, we cannot comment on an individual student's case, as this violates privacy laws," Lewis told NBC News in an email. He added that since it was established in 1999, "DCTAG has helped make college affordable for thousands of DC residents."
Lewis also said that in the 2015-16 school year, the last year for which data are available, DCTAG funded 4,525 students and found 137 students ineligible.
According to court documents, in a June 2015 denial letter, a DCTAG official wrote Villalobos she was ineligible because "parent is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident." Then a year later, the same official told Villalobos again she was ineligible for the same reason and "Applicant will never be eligible for DCTAG."
MALDEF said in its lawsuit that the additional requirement for Villalobos' mother to be a legal resident or citizen is not found in the D.C. Code provisions that established DCTAG or DCTAG's implementing regulations.
In the meantime, Villalobos has been working as a dog walker and trainer to help save for schooling and expects to begin classes this summer while awaiting a decision regarding DCTAG. She ultimately wants to study business management and child development and open her own child care facility.
"The idea that you'll be judged on your own merits and not where your parents are from is at the core of who we are as a country," Lopez said.
Similar challenges have succeeded in court. In 2012, a federal court ruled that Florida could not deny a U.S. citizen in-state resident status based on her parents' immigration status.