Jose Blanco dreams of being a U.S. Marine and fighting for the country he grew up in.
“I just want to serve as much as a lot of people want to serve their country,” said the 17-year-old Porter Ridge High School student. “My family lives here and I’m part of this country now. My family is happy, and it’s something I am motivated to fight for. I’m willing to sacrifice anything.”
Blanco can’t join the U.S. military, though, because he is not a U.S. citizen. He is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, which means he is protected from deportation but without a path to citizenship, which excludes him from many of the same opportunities other American students have.
His future is deeply uncertain, but on Wednesday, he saw a sliver of hope during his participation at an event at the North Carolina General Assembly aimed at educating lawmakers about the more than 300,000 undocumented residents and 27,000 DACA recipients in the state.
Blanco told Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) about his future goals, and she told him she would do some research and that he should call her a little later to see if she can help him.
“I’m really grateful for that,” he said after talking with her.
Morey was one of a few Democratic lawmakers who held a press conference Wednesday calling for support to pass “tuition equity” bills – Senate Bill 615, which would extend in-state tuition eligibility to DACA students who meet certain criteria, and House Bill 319, which would extend in-state tuition eligibility to all students (including undocumented residents) who meet certain criteria.
Undocumented college students and DACA recipients in North Carolina are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which is nearly 300 percent higher, on average, than in-state tuition, according to the advocacy coalition Adelante NC (the North Carolina Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch, is an Adelante NC member). Many of those students have spent most of their lives in the state.
Dariana Valencia is one of those students. She is a Raleigh native, DACA recipient and currently a sophomore at Queens University in Charlotte. She has a scholarship to attend now but said the process leading up to college made her feel hopeless and unwanted.
DACA recipients also are not eligible for federal financial aid, so they bear the burden of high tuition costs on their own.
“This is not just about me, but our future students, students who work tirelessly day and night to make themselves proud and to make their parents proud for each and every sacrifice they’ve made since they got here,” Valencia said. “These are our future medics, lawyers, engineers and artists who deserve a chance – a chance to let their brilliance and hard work shine through.”
There are 20 states that currently have a tuition equity policy in place, which boosts college enrollment, improves earnings and benefits economies. A tuition equity policy in North Carolina could benefit an estimated 677 students each year with minimal cost (if every estimated undocumented student enrolled in college here, they would represent less than one percent of total in-state students), according to Adelante.
Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell, Orange) said at the press conference that tuition equity bills used to garner bipartisan support, but that stopped in 2016.
“The open hostility from the Republican Party to our immigrant populations has made this an issue that has scared Republican colleagues from sponsoring these bills,” he explained. “They talk privately about understanding who these students are – they know that they’re in their communities and school districts; they want to see these kids succeed and contribute – but the hostile political atmosphere has left us without bipartisan support.”
He also took time later in the day to speak with smaller groups of students and encouraged them to be a consistent presence at the legislature to push for change.
Students who recently graduated and who were at the legislature Wednesday also participated in a mock “undocugraduation” ceremony and spoke about the various career fields they would enter if given the opportunity.
They spoke with several lawmakers in the building and then concluded their day by marching to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to drop off their diplomas and urge his support for tuition equity.
Geraldine Ledezma, a 19-year-old DACA recipient who attends Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, said she was inspired to see all of the students fighting for an issue that has impacted her and her community.
She applied for several scholarships that she was eventually told she wasn’t eligible for because she’s not a resident. She attends on a separate scholarship now, but many of her friends weren’t so lucky and their financial obstacles forced them to either take a gap year or not attend college at all.
“I just want an opportunity for students,” Ledezma said. “I think this is an issue that there should be more light shined upon.”