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Immigration status harms need-based financial aid eligibility

Lawrence Bacudio, a NCSSM graduate and future freshman at UNC, attends orientation despite financial issues as he awaits his green card.

Lawrence Bacudio, a NCSSM graduate and future freshman at UNC, attends orientation despite financial issues as he awaits his green card.

He had set up an online fundraiser the night before to help pay for college. He couldn’t go back to sleep, and he started daydreaming about life as a UNC student.

College accessibility has long been a priority in the state, which boasts the nation’s oldest public university. But the lack of financial aid for students of varying immigration statuses can pose a major barrier.

Bacudio, a graduate from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, immigrated to the U.S. after he finished fifth grade in the Philippines, where he was born. He will attend UNC as a freshman this fall.

Right now, Bacudio’s family can only pay for one semester at UNC for certain, he said, and he tries not to think about whether he can attend all four years.

“I choose to ignore it and just look on the bright side for now and see what my chances are and improve those chances by, for example, applying to (outside) scholarships,” he said.

Due to his family’s current immigration status, Bacudio does not have a social security number and cannot qualify for any type of need-based financial aid, something he had counted on receiving.

Almost 50 people have donated more than a total of $4,000 to Bacudio’s fundraiser, as of press time.

He said his family applied for green cards in February 2010 and is hoping to obtain them this year, which would enable Bacudio to receive future financial aid.

Without a social security number, students cannot qualify for need-based aid unless they fall under a protected federal category, such as someone with refugee status, said Eric Johnson, a spokesman for UNC’s financial aid office.

“We have, in the past, been able to use private funds to support a handful of undocumented students,” Johnson said. “But that was on a very case-by-case basis, and we simply don’t have that funding anymore.”

Former student body president candidate Emilio Vicente, a rising senior and well-known undocumented student, attended UNC on a privately-funded merit scholarship from the University.

“This is the only way that it worked out for me; otherwise, I probably would have gone out-of-state,” he said. “So I am really lucky and thankful.”

Such private funding comes from individual donors or family trusts, Johnson said.

For UNC students who are N.C. residents, the total estimated cost of attendance is $24,120 for the entire 2014-15 school year.

But undocumented students are treated as international students by state law and need to pay out-of-state tuition and fees, Johnson said.

The total estimated cost for an out-of-state UNC student is $50,938 for 2014-15.

Bacudio, whose family is in the U.S. legally on visas, was originally billed the out-of-state tuition rate but eventually proved he qualified for in-state tuition.

Undocumented students can have even fewer options.

Having universities provide a few private scholarships at the out-of-state tuition rate is not sustainable, Vicente said.

“The reality of budget cuts is, unfortunately, (private funding) is not available,” he said.

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Last year, Vicente co-founded the “One State, One Rate” campaign to advocate for in-state tuition for undocumented students.

The N.C. Justice Center published a study last month in support of such a policy, referred to as tuition equity.

“I think the most important finding is that tuition equity does have the potential to really improve not just the economic wellbeing of many young people living in N.C., but also the broader economy,” said study co-author Alexandra Sirota.

Costs are minimal to the state, and the benefits are long-term as undocumented graduates contribute to their communities and inspire younger students, she said.

A n estimated 677 undocumented N.C. high school graduates are likely to attend college each year, according to the N.C. Justice Center’s study.

“It’s a small but important group of people,” Sirota said.

Immigrants contribute to industries such as health care and the service sector, which benefit from bilingual and multicultural employees, said Dani Moore, director of the N.C. Justice Center’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“For there to be a systemic barrier to them, to be blocking access financially to these students is wasting the talent that they could bring our state,” she said.

Bacudio, who hopes to attend medical school, is fluent in both English and Tagalog, his first language. He was inspired to be a doctor after he contracted the mosquito-borne dengue fever living in the Philippines.

Senior Christopher Gremillion, Bacudio’s freshman orientation leader, said immigrant students contribute unique perspectives.

“It’s such an important thing because it just enhances the conversations that we have at places like UNC and ideally in the general public,” he said.

Moore said the N.C. Justice Center has been working since 2005 to build legislative support for tuition equity.

Undocumented students in at least 18 states can qualify for in-state tuition rates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The University of California system’s undocumented students have been able to qualify for both in-state tuition and some state sources of financial aid since the California Dream Act was passed in 2001.

Vicente said he thinks it’s not a matter of if, but when, reform will happen in N.C.

But Mitch Kokai, a spokesman for the John Locke Foundation, said the state’s Republican leaders believe illegal immigrants do not deserve taxpayers’ benefits.

“If the university and state’s coffers were flushed with cash, they still wouldn’t want to give in-state tuition to undocumented students,” he said.

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