How should the government treat young immigrants who were brought into the United States through no fault of their own by their undocumented parents? That question is one of the most urgent in our national immigration debate. Most of these young immigrants have lived in the United States almost all of their lives; it is where they call home. In North Carolina and states across the country, they attend school, go to work, and pay taxes.
Understanding this reality, in 2012, the Obama administration established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects from deportation immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age, have established roots in this country, and are upstanding and contributing members to their communities.
Last year, North Carolina officials helped thousands of young DACA recipients contribute to our state by issuing them driver’s licenses, in accordance with the law, to go along with the Social Security numbers and employment authorization provided by the federal government by virtue of their legal presence in the U.S.
Unfortunately, state officials have inexplicably created a new obstacle for DACA recipients hoping to put down roots and give back to North Carolina: Any DACA student living in North Carolina who applies for or attends one of our state’s many public universities will not be eligible for in-state tuition, making it harder, if not impossible, for thousands of such young people to afford college. This is true no matter how long they’ve lived (and paid taxes) in the state.
Obviously, this creates a huge hurdle. An undergraduate in-state resident at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, paid $3,211.50 in tuition per semester during the 2013-2014 academic year, while a non-resident paid $14,102.50—more than four times as much—for the same education. Similar differences apply to all state institutions of higher learning.
According to the State’s Residency Classification Manual, the reason for discounting the tuition of in-state residents is to provide higher education at as low a cost as possible to students who are people of the state.
What seems nonsensical, however, is to classify individuals who have lived in North Carolina nearly all of their lives as anything but people of the state. In most cases, DACA recipients have attended and graduated from North Carolina high schools and are now trying to continue their education so that they can enrich the fabric of our state. Many DACA recipients are gainfully employed and are dutifully supporting their families. Their income taxes end up in the same government coffers from which the legislature then appropriates funds to support the system of public education they cannot afford to attend!
The effects of paying out-of-state tuition can be devastating to a family. Paying more than $28,000 per year makes higher education cost-prohibitive because the vast majority of families do not have such sums. Even the tuition for community colleges can become a heavy burden to bear for a low-income family. Many students are forced to leave their studies behind and work in order to try to amass the funds required to continue their course of study. Many never pull off this daunting feat.
It is also worth noting that DACA recipients are not eligible for financial aid and that private scholarships are extremely difficult to come by. This harsh reality contributes to the hopelessness felt by so many students who are seeing their dreams dashed by the realization that their families will never be able to save enough for college.
It makes little fiscal sense to develop the young minds of immigrant students, educate them through high school and then close the door after they have been given an opportunity to work legally in the country. This antiquated course of action diminishes the great accomplishments of DACA students, relegates them to second-class status when it comes to higher education and it is detrimental to our state’s competitiveness and economic prosperity.
More than 16 other states have enacted legislation which makes DACA recipients eligible for in-state tuition, while other state university systems, such as those in Michigan and Ohio, have adopted policies helping DACA recipients to be classified as in-state residents for tuition purposes. It’s about time that North Carolina’s leaders see the tremendous value in providing affordable higher education to the thousands of DACA recipients who want nothing more than to give back to the very state that they call home.
Raul Pinto is a staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina.