Politics & Government

Immigrant students graduating from NC high schools want in-state college tuition

There are thousands of North Carolina students who were brought to the U.S. as children through illegal immigration. When they graduate from high school, those hoping to attend college aren’t eligible for in-state tuition, as students in 20 other states are.

One them is Rosalinda Patino, a senior at Garinger High School in Charlotte.

Patino immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 3 years old, and grew up a student in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She started working with her parents when she was 11, after school. She feels grateful for the things she has, but has sacrificed a lot to keep her parents proud, Patino said.

“I just hope for something better,” she said. Her father was deported last year, and it’s been difficult, she said.

Patino was among dozens of high school students, college students and those hoping to go to college who held a mock graduation — called “undocugraduation,” a reference to undocumented status — at the state legislature on Wednesday.

States are required to provide public K-12 education for all students regardless of immigration status, but the same is not true for higher education.

Supporters of in-state tuition for students who graduate from North Carolina public schools, regardless of their immigration status, know that a bill won’t pass the General Assembly this year, as the deadline for most bills to move through the House or Senate this session has passed. But they’re already looking to next year.

“I just wish everyone would come together and let us go to college, instead of just graduating from high school,” Patino said.

‘Uphill battle’ to get Republican support

Several Democrats support the idea, but it’s an uphill battle getting Republican support, said Sen. Wiley Nickel, a Wake County Democrat.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, opponents of the in-state tuition have argued that it would be an incentive to immigrate illegally, or take away an opportunity from another student.

In North Carolina, the idea doesn’t appear likely to get a lot of support from Republicans who control the legislature.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Boone Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, released a statement through Senate leader Phil Berger’s office, contrasting the idea with proposals to cut money for school vouchers.

“Senate Democrats want to eliminate scholarship funds that allow working class kids to go to the same schools as wealthier families, but then give taxpayer-funded subsidies to people who aren’t even in this country legally. I think they need to reassess their priorities,” Ballard said.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, said in-state tuition is both an equity and economic development issue, citing the other 20 states that allow it.

Kayla Romero Morais of Students for Education Reform said that some students give up college plans because they cannot afford it. She said supporters are hoping that in the next legislative session if they can’t win support for in-state tuition for all public North Carolina colleges, the state could at least start with community colleges.

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Maria Lopez Gonzalez, a student at Meredith College, cheers on other students at they line up to speak during the 7th annual Undocugraduation, which brought dozens of students to the NC Legislative Building to lobby their state representatives for in-state college tuition regardless of immigration status on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com


The students who participated in the mock graduation took turns describing their career aspirations, which included nursing, mathematics, medicine, real estate, education, architecture and public policy.

Maria Lopez Gonzalez, 20, graduated from West Bladen High School in Bladenboro, then went to Wake Technical Community College and is now studying political science at Meredith College in Raleigh. She has lived in the U.S. since she was 1. Her dad came first, as a migrant farmworker; then her mom; and then they sent for her. Her mom’s brother was persecuted by gang violence, Gonzalez said, and didn’t want that for her children. Both parents came from a difficult situation, she said.

“My dad grew up in a shed. They knew what it was like to live without, and didn’t want me to,” she said.

Gonzalez was the first girl in her family to graduate from high school, and the first family member to graduate from college. She wants to be a policy analyst and possibly a lawyer.

Dariana Valencia is a graduate of Millbrook High School in Raleigh and is now a student at Queens University in Charlotte. A nursing major, her tuition is paid through a scholarship.

Valencia, 19, moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was around 5 years old. She only has faint memories of it. She’s a DACA recipient, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is an Obama-era program that defers deportation. It’s been under fire from the Trump administration.

Dariana Valencia, a DACA recipient, graduate of Millbrook High School in Raleigh and currently a student at Queens University in Charlotte. She wants North Carolina to provide in-state tuition regardless of immigration status, as do 20 other states. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@newsobserver.com

Her parents also went to college, and her mother was a secretary and her dad a pilot in Mexico. “That didn’t mean anything here,” Valencia said. Now their jobs are cleaning at an insurance company. She said they’ve been supportive of her goals, and she wants other students to be able to afford college, too.

“These are people who want to go to school and make the best of the rest of their life,” she said.

North Carolina had about 25,000 DACA recipients as of September 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The ACLU of North Carolina says there are 27,000 DACA recipients living in the state now.

A News & Observer survey of some state leaders showed a majority supporting a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

Supporters of in-state tuition for North Carolina high school graduates regardless of immigration status would include both DACA and non-DACA recipients.

In 2016, an estimated 3,000 unauthorized immigrants graduated from North Carolina high schools, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, which seeks to improve immigration policy. The report shows the largest numbers in California, with 27,000 graduates, and Texas, with 17,000 high school graduates of 98,000 total across the United States.

Rep. John Faircloth meets with High Point Central High School students Starlynn Mendez, left, and Alma Yanez-Aguilar during the 7th annual Undocugraduation, which brought dozens of students to the NC Legislative Building to lobby their state representatives for in-state college tuition regardless of immigration status on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, in Raleigh, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com
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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.