Monday, 22 July 2024 20:57

Immigration status creating barriers for some students

Friday, 27 February 2015

ASHEVILLE – Paying for college is tough for most anyone. But for Melvis Madrigal and students like him, it's even more challenging.

Madrigal, 20, graduated in 2013 from Roberson High with a 4.0 grade point average. A resident of Asheville for 14 years, he spent 13 of those years — from kindergarten to graduation — in Buncombe County schools.

But the problem for Madrigal is his immigration status. Because he's not a U.S. citizen or legal resident, he wasn't eligible for in-state tuition at one of North Carolina's public universities. He's also not eligible for federal financial aid.

"It has definitely created a huge hardship. I know that it definitely is not just me," he said.

Out-of-state tuition can be three or four times higher than in-state costs. And for many undocumented students, the cost is a barrier they can't overcome.

"We have a groups of kids who have grown up in our state, have been a part of our educational system, many that have been valedictorians and have been honor roll students, and have everything in the world going for them, and then they meet this roadblock," said Natalie Teague, an immigration attorney in Asheville.

Advocacy groups have been pushing for years for a change in state law to provide in-state tuition for students without legal immigration status.

In 2013, a bill was introduced that would have allowed some immigrant students to receive in-state tuition provided that they had filed an application to legalize their immigration status. That bill was not approved.

State Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said he doesn't see support for the change.

"I'm just not hearing any discussion about it," he said.

McGrady hasn't taken a position on the issue. He has heard from a number of students and potential students about the issue.

"You can get a few lawmakers that will introduce a bill, but getting a bill that's got some legs is a different thing," he said. "Some shy away from it because they really don't think we should be providing benefits of any sort to undocumented persons. Others shy away from it because of the feeling that this is a federal issue and states weighing in on immigration issues is just a really bad precedent."

The issue is "politically hot in some places, meaning that there's no upside and lots of downside to getting all out front on this issue," he said.

Immigration reform remains divisive.

A Texas judge recently put on hold President Barack Obama's executive order that would have provided protection from deportation to undocumented parents of U.S.-born children or children who are permanent residents.

The DACA program

The president's actions also would have expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which allows some children who were brought to the U.S. protections from deportation.

The president signed that order in 2012, clearing the way for students like Madrigal to gain what's known as "deferred action," or DACA, status.

That program applies to children who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 15. It required that students demonstrate they have been in the U.S. from at least before June 15, 2007, through the present, according to Teague.

They also have to be in high school, be a high school graduate, have gotten a GED or "have been in some type of educational program that was headed toward getting a GED or a high school diploma here in the United States," Teague said.

The original program was only for those younger than 31. The president's more recent executive order would lift that age requirement.

"The thing about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, it's literally the Executive Branch saying that we will not prosecute you for deportation for a period of two years," Teague said.

A number of students like Madrigal applied for and received DACA status. It allowed them to get a work permit and a driver's license. But it doesn't provide for in-state tuition in North Carolina. An opinion from the N.C. Attorney General's office stated that it would take action by the General Assembly to provide in-state tuition to DACA students.

About 20 states do provide in-state tuition for undocumented students, according to Alexandra Sirota, director of the Budget & Tax Center, which is a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

"The in-state tuition laws vary across those states, but for the most part, the policies state that someone who is either graduated from a high school in the state or received a GED is eligible for in-state tuition," she said.

Sarah Nunez, an advocate for Latino students for more than a decade in WNC, said the approach states take varies widely.

Some states have tuition equity and even offer state aid to undocumented students. But some "just close the door completely" and don't allow undocumented students to enroll.

The lack of in-state tuition in North Carolina "puts college out of reach for a large number of people," she said.

"And honestly, it's a form of discrimination. It is an unjust way to treat a population of people who were brought here by their parents who feel like they are Americans, more than they are from the countries that their parents came from or their countries of origin," Nunez said.

But Ron Woodard, director of NC LISTEN which supports "immigration reform and enforcement," said students can return to their home countries if they wish to continue their education.

"When young people become adults, and they've finished high school and they are legally from another country, nothing prevents them from going back to their home country and going to school or community college or a university there," Woodard said.

"College is a selection process. Not everybody gets to go," he said.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires public schools to admit students in kindergarten through 12th grade regardless of immigration status, but that does not apply to college, Woodard said.

Supporters point out that North Carolina has already invested in these students' K-12 education, and that businesses are recruiting workers from outside the state and outside the U.S. because of a lack of workers in certain fields.

The Budget & Tax Center released a report last summer estimating that of the roughly 1,400 undocumented students graduating from North Carolina high schools, about half or 677 were likely to attend college and could benefit from a change in law.

"It (allowing these students in-state tuition) is a minimal cost to the state, and it has the potential to make a real difference for those 677 students," Sirota said. "We know that it will make a big difference in their (students') earnings particularly if they are able to fully complete their program."

Out-of-state tuition

At Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, curriculum courses are $72 per credit hour for in-state students or $264 per credit hour for out-of-state students, according to Rebecca Howell, director of student advising and support services.

For 16 credit hours, an in-state student would pay $1,152 compared to $4,224 for an out-of-state student.

Howell said students with deferred action status can qualify for in-state tuition if their employer is willing to sponsor them. Without an employer sponsor, deferred action students must pay out-of-state tuition. Students without any documentation also pay out-of state tuition.

But there are some differences between deferred action status students and students who have no documentation at all, according to Howell.

Deferred action students can register early for classes, but undocumented students without DACA status cannot.

Undocumented students cannot register until after classes begin and only if there's an open spot in a class. They also cannot enroll in competitive programs where there's a waiting list, according to Howell.

Nayeli Barajas, 19, hopes to get into the nursing program at A-B Tech.

She graduated from Erwin High in 2014, one of the top 25 students in her class. She's been living in Buncombe County since she was 4 years old.

But the only way she qualifies for in-state tuition at A-B Tech is with sponsorship by her employer, a local restaurant.

Like Madrigal, Barajas has deferred action status.

"I feel we should have the same opportunity as far an education," she said.

Speaking out

Erwin High senior Michelle Montero is hoping to start a local group to advocate for changes in the law as part of her senior project.

Montero has a green card and is working toward U.S. citizenship, but she worries about her little sister and others she knows facing this potential barrier to college.

"Hopefully a change will happen," she said. "I know it will be really hard, but maybe somebody speaking out will get others to speak out too. And since I have a lot of friends who have this issue, maybe I can help them join."

"It starts out small but then it will get bigger and bigger when more people find out," she said of the issue.

Montero estimates she knows 10 students or former students who have run into problems paying for college because of their immigration status.

One of those is fellow Erwin student Monserrat "Monse" Gonzalez, who has been a student in Buncombe County Schools since first grade.

Gonzalez, who also has deferred action status, has been accepted at Appalachian State, but she worries how she will pay the out-of-state tuition.

"It's $20,000 versus $7,000, which is in-state tuition," she said.

Gonzalez is trying to find scholarship opportunities. She's also started a account called "Fight for Appalachian" to raise money. (Her page is found at

"I already got in (to college), that's the first step. Now, I just have to find a way to pay for it," she said.

Madrigal is in his second year at Warren Wilson College. He was able to obtain grants and scholarships, most academically based, to attend.

"College is hard enough to pay off even being a citizen, but when you have certain things closed off because you don't fall under the category then finding money and paying for college, no matter the price, is really challenging," he said.

Carolina Siliceo-Perez is proof it can be done.

The 22-year-old attended Blue Ridge Community College in Hendersonville for two years before transferring to Brevard College.

She was at Blue Ridge before deferred action status was available, making it tough to get the classes she needed.

"One of the things that was really challenging about registering last was both math and science classes filled up really quickly," she said.

She was also working full-time. And because she was undocumented, she had to worry about traffic stops driving to and from school.

Siliceo-Perez ended up transferring to Brevard College, where she was awarded scholarships that helped offset some of the costs. She received her bachelor's degree in English.

She has also obtained her deferred action status. "Basically it gave me peace of mind," she said.

Siliceo-Perez would like to see more scholarship opportunities for students facing these high tuition costs.

Nunez echoed the need for more scholarship opportunities for students regardless of their immigration status. She is relocating to Kentucky to run the Hispanic/Latino Initiative on the campus of the University of Louisville, which does offer tuition equity to students.

Nunez said it can be confusing for students because each state is different.

"I've been inside the system. I've been outside the system. It's daunting," she said.


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