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Nativity scene symbolizes hardship of immigrants in a protest for equal tuition

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Most nativity reenactments happen at churches, but one took place in front of the N.C. Community College System office Sunday as a part of a protest seeking equal tuition for students who are not in the country legally.

Mary and Joseph wore labels that said “immigrant,” and there was a label on top of Mary’s stomach that said “child of immigrants.”

They marched from the system’s office two blocks to the General Assembly building to symbolize the journey Mary and Joseph took before being denied a room at the inn in Bethlehem, just as undocumented students and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are denied equal tuition to colleges in North Carolina.

These students must pay out-of-state tuition in North Carolina even if they are long-term residents. The marchers want North Carolina to join 18 other states that allow so-called Dreamers and residents who are here illegally to pay in-state tuition.

The march was organized by El Pueblo, the NAACP, the Poor People’s Campaign and other local organizations. Ana Ilarraza Blackburn, the Latino liaison for the N.C. NAACP, said she’s been organizing marches for equal tuition for 12 years, but this was first to incorporate a nativity scene.

“How do you go into the season and celebrate Jesus when he was an immigrant and yet impose bills and continually pass anti-immigrant bills on the very community that is helping build the state and nation?” said Blackburn, who said she’d like to see Gov. Roy Cooper press for change as well.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, out-of-state students pay $34,938 per semester in tuition, compared to the $8,910 for in-state students.

Throughout the march, the group stopped to hear from children of immigrants about their experiences.

Raina Lee, a junior at Green Hope High School in Cary, started crying when she recounted what her parents dealt with as first-generation immigrants.

“I think about the suffering and the indignities my parents have faced,” Lee said. “Being treated as perpetual foreigners in this country. My father speaks often about his time at university, and I know how much it has shaped his life.”

Lee said her father now works as an immigration lawyer to help immigrants build a life in America.

Blackburn says she doesn’t want to have to organize the march again.

“We are here because there isn’t equal access to education. We are here because what our state and our legislators are literally saying is that we are not worthy of an education,” Blackburn said. “So it’s not like we want to be here. I don’t want to be here. I want to be able to come back here next year and have this be a celebration and move forward as a community.”

Rashaan Ayesh is The News & Observer’s Fact Checking Fellow. She looks into claims made by politicians and pundits all over North Carolina. She grew up in Raleigh and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at rayesh@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4802.


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