The state attorney general is siding with the UNC and community college systems in saying students who have received a temporary reprieve from deportation are not eligible for an in-state break on tuition.
Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office, in an advisory letter made public Thursday, said state law would have to be changed to allow students under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to pay the same tuition as North Carolina residents.
With a Republican-controlled General Assembly, that is not going to happen. A Democratic-sponsored bill to allow it was buried in a committee without action last year.
Student immigration activists have campaigned to persuade the colleges and universities to grant the lower tuition afforded legal North Carolina residents. It has become an issue in the campaign for UNC-Chapel Hill student body president, where one of the outspoken advocates is candidate Emilio Vicente, a 22-year-old Guatemalan native who grew up in Siler City without legal residency status.
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Vicente is attending UNC on a private full scholarship, but for many of the estimated 16,000 students without documentation, the substantially higher costs will be unreachable.
The student activists have publicly pressured Cooper – the state’s leading Democratic officeholder, and a likely candidate for governor in 2016 – to take their side. Earlier this month, they staged marches in the Triangle that concluded with a mock funeral outside his office in Raleigh.
The group reacted angrily Thursday.
“Attorney General Roy Cooper has thrown immigrant students under the bus,” the group said in a statement released to the news media. “Democrat Roy Cooper follows a line of Democratic politicians putting politics over policy when it comes to immigrant students.” The reference was to then-Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton voting against allowing students without legal status to enroll in community colleges, and to Sen. Kay Hagan opposing the federal DREAM Act conditional residency bill.
The letter, signed by two attorneys in Cooper’s office on Wednesday, is not a formal opinion and is not binding on the educational systems. It was written in response to a request from state Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat from High Point who is running for Congress in the 12th District, in December seeking guidance.
It was Brandon’s proposed legislation, House Bill 904, that went nowhere last year. On Thursday, Brandon said he hoped people would encourage their legislators to back the bill.
“I’m disappointed in the fact that we have a policy in the state of North Carolina that says we will give students enough education to be low-skilled workers, but anything beyond that is illegal,” he said. “I think that’s hypocritical and an injustice.”
N.C. LISTEN, which advocates for more controls on immigration, praised the attorney general’s position as a good start.
“We’re going to continue to work to deny access to them even as out-of-state students,” said Ron Woodard, the director. “Every illegal alien that gets into our universities will displace an American citizen who is also qualified.”
The DACA program – begun by President Barack Obama in 2012 – awards temporary resident status to immigrants’ children who find themselves without legal status. That can occur if their parents came into the country illegally, or if they overstayed their visa status or otherwise violated visa conditions. If accepted, the children receive two-year deferments from deportation and must meet certain requirements, including being in school or having graduated from high school.
UNC-CH tuition and fees for out-of-state students is currently almost $30,000 a year, contrasted with about $8,000 for North Carolina residents.
Federal law prohibits a student without legal status from receiving in-state tuition, except for those whose deportation has been delayed under DACA in states that allow that benefit, the attorneys wrote. North Carolina law requires a student to be a legal resident for at least a year before gaining eligibility for in-state tuition.
Last year, the attorney general issued an opinion that allowed DACA students to receive driver’s licenses for at least the two-year deferred-prosecution period. But that is a different legal issue, the attorneys wrote.
In that matter, DACA students were deemed to be “lawfully present” in the country during their deferral, which made them eligible to drive. But that does not make them legal residents for the purposes of determining tuition, the attorneys say.