N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office deemed N.C. students without documentation ineligible for in-state tuition in a letter released Thursday — but activists, embattled from a 30-mile march earlier this month in pursuit of policy change, say the fight is far from over.
The advisory letter states that immigration policy falls under federal authority, and students without documentation — including those qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grants deferred deportation to those brought to the U.S. without documentation as children — do not meet residency requirements for in-state tuition.
The statement evoked shock from some activists, while others say uncertainty looms over their educational plans.
“My graduation date’s still uncertain, and it shouldn’t be that way,” said Keny Murillo, a member of the N.C. DREAM Team, a group advocating for in-state tuition. Murillo, a student at Durham Technical Community College, wants to eventually transfer to a four-year university.
Now, he doesn’t know when he will be able to afford to transfer.
Cooper, a Democrat, has said he plans to run for governor in 2016.
“I kind of thought that as a candidate for governor, he would stand up for education,” said Daniela Hernandez Blanco, a UNC sophomore and advocate of the One State, One Rate campaign for in-state tuition.
But N.C. Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, who requested Cooper’s legal opinion last month, said the outcome came as no surprise.
“I was hopeful for a different response, but I was expecting it,” Brandon said. “The attorney general made it very clear that this is something we would have to tackle on the federal level. His hands are tied; he has to abide by the current law.”
Brandon said tuition policy could also shift through a change in state law. He is sponsoring a bill would topple the status quo, allowing in-state tuition for some N.C. students without documentation.
The letter from the attorney general’s office said the bill “would make these changes by giving certain immigrant students in-state tuition status.”
“This is a national issue where we continue to treat part of our population as second-class citizens, and that’s just not OK,” Brandon said.
He said the state funds K-12 education for students without documentation, but these students do not receive the benefit of in-state tuition — a gap he said signals a lack of long-term investment in their education.
And Murillo said students in his situation simply want the chance to be able to afford higher education.
“This state has made a huge investment in us, and after high school, we just have to stop?” he said.
Brandon said the current policy creates a class distinction that drives students without documentation to the bottom tier of the workforce.
“We give them enough education to be low-level workers, but not enough education to be skilled workers, and that is an injustice,” he said.
Hernandez Blanco said she thinks the letter undercuts a previous opinion by Cooper, which determined that DACA students are “lawfully present” in the U.S.
But Thursday’s letter said these students’ status falls short of N.C. residency requirements for in-state tuition, unless state law changes.
Hernandez Blanco called the letter a political move.
“It means that people aren’t going to go to college,” she said. “Those kids who went from kindergarten to 12th grade thinking that they were going to be pediatricians, lawyers, engineers — they’re not going to be any of those things.”
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