When a Navy recruiter visited his high school, Carlos was among those students eager to sign up. In communities of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, there’s a long tradition of sending young men into the Navy and Coast Guard. “I thought if I could serve the country in the military, it could help to pay for my college education,” he said recently. “But they told me that since your Social Security card and your driver’s license allow you only to work and drive, we can’t take you.”
In 2006, when he was 7, Carlos came to Manteo, N.C., from Mexico with his mother and younger sister to visit his uncles. “We overstayed,” he said. He attended elementary school, middle school and high school, graduating from Manteo High School in 2016 with a 3.4 GPA. Because of President Obama’s 2012 DACA executive order (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Carlos is in the U.S. legally. This summer he worked two shifts at a local restaurant.
Technically, Carlos is not undocumented. He has a Social Security Card, a North Carolina driver’s license, an Individual Tax Identification Number from the IRS, his DACA document, and a high school diploma. But he’s not a documented U.S. citizen or “lawful permanent resident” with a so-called Green Card. Without that status, it was nearly impossible for him to go to college.
As in most states, North Carolina’s four-year public universities and community colleges do not consider “undocumented” applicants state residents. If admitted, those students must pay out-of-state tuition, which can be four or five times the cost of in-state tuition. Such applicants are not eligible for any form of government financial assistance, either. They can get some local scholarships (Carlos was awarded three), which typically can pay for books, supplies, transportation, and maybe a place to live for one year.
“For a student like Carlos,” said Seth Rose, his college advisor at Manteo High, “who works at [a local restaurant], helps to support his family, whose family doesn’t make much money, community college is not affordable. If you’re in college and your financial condition is always on your mind, it’s really hard to apply yourself and to graduate.”
When Seth Rose began counseling Carlos, he recognized a determined young man. Seth was serving two years with the College Advising Corps in the Dare County system of three high schools. The College Advising Corps since 2005 has placed recent college graduates in schools where many students are from low-income households and are first-generation college applicants. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Seth helped Carlos scour the financial aid landscape, and eventually they came upon The Dream.US.
Since 2014, The Dream.US has awarded more than 1,700 scholarships and $49.6 million to “highly motivated DREAMERS.” The program’s name comes from the proposed Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), bipartisan legislation first introduced in the Senate in 2001, that has never passed. The Dream Act sets criteria for DACA immigrants to become U.S. citizens. It was reintroduced with more liberal measures in July by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R. S.C.) among others. The legislation would allow DACA immigrants to acquire a Green Card and achieve citizenship in 13 years and would make attending college and joining the military much easier.
Citing 1.8 million Dreamers in the U.S. and 65,000 graduating from high school each year (other estimates put the total number of DACA participants at closer to 800,000), The Dream.US vision is that “All DREAMers should have the opportunity to realize the American dream of obtaining a college education and contributing to the prosperity of our nation.” It has 75 partner colleges in 14 states. The philanthropy is supported by foundations and corporations established by, among others, the Graham family who published the Washington Post, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pershing Square Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
“I’m going to college!”
Fit and energetic as the cross-country runner he was in high school, and always smiling, Carlos will enter his sophomore year at Delaware State University in Dover on August 28. The Dream.US gave him a full scholarship for four years. He chose DSU among Dream.US-affiliated colleges for its business programs. At first he thought he would study economics, but he shifted to marketing, because he figured an economics background would more likely steer him toward government jobs, for which he likely would not be eligible.
When he got his scholarship notice, Carlos said, he hugged his mother and cried for two hours. “I stopped crying only because I had to go to work” at his restaurant job. “It’s such an awesome thing for me to be able to say, ‘I’m going to college!’”
His mother wanted to take her two children from their town near Mexico City because “she wanted us to have an opportunity for a better life,” Carlos said. “It really was not safe to be out at night there.” Since settling in Manteo, his mother married an American and they had a son, a brother to Carlos and his sister. His step-father is a letter carrier.
While Carlos has not felt stigmatized in the community—“one of my friends is a southern, white redneck, and he teases me, but he’s still my friend—he says, “It’s hard living in a country for so long, and you’re still not a citizen. But you’re still contributing every day as much as anyone else. We’re still paying taxes on everything. But we’re more a form of income for the government.”
Seth Rose, the college advisor, agrees that in Dare County communities “you don’t see a lot of prejudice against, say, Latino students. But the rhetoric that’s going on nationally does intimidate my students. They hear vague talking like someone saying, ‘I’m glad Trump got elected because he’ll send people back to Mexico.’ But in the schools, staff is very supportive in helping any students who want to pursue their education. People generally don’t know who is undocumented. We don’t go around asking, because that can be a point of fear for some students.”
He stresses that “Carlos was just an average student, but when given this college opportunity he became much more than that. This scholarship has given Carlos a ton of confidence. He’s in Delaware, he’s meeting with senators, he’s engaged in student activities, he’s political engaged, socially engaged. He’s so excited to have the opportunity he has. He’s making the absolute most of it.”
When Carlos came back as a college freshman to visit his high school, Rose said, “he was beaming, electric,” and wanted to spread the word about what’s possible for motivated immigrant students. Carlos has inspired other Dare County students who aren’t U.S. citizens to pursue the Dream.US scholarship. This fall, three others will be in their first semester: one will be at Delaware State, while two others will be at Eastern Connecticut State University.
“As I continue at Delaware State,” Carlos said, “my goal is to help other students: Don’t consider your status as a negative. Think of it as a positive, that you can show people what you can contribute.”
Michael E.C. Gery is a freelance writer who recently retired as editor of Carolina Country magazine. He lives in Roanoke Island.