When Sam Gomez Olvera was a senior in high school, he, like many other students pursuing higher education, applied for scholarships. As he waited to hear back from the Golden Door Scholarship, a scholarship fund for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, the stakes were high: not getting the scholarship would prevent him from attending a four-year institution.
“It was like a do-or-die moment,” he said.
Gomez Olvera is one of approximately 25,000 DACA recipients living in North Carolina. Though he immigrated to the United States when he was six months old, his undocumented status required him to pay out-of-state tuition and made him ineligible for federal financial aid because he would be considered an international student.
Although Gomez Olvera received the scholarship and is now a sophomore at UNC, he said many of his friends were not as fortunate.
Senate Bill 615 would authorize DACA recipients to receive in-state tuition at UNC constituent institutions and state community colleges if they meet two requirements: they received a high school diploma or equivalent diploma within North Carolina, and they attended in-state schools for a minimum of two consecutive years immediately prior to completing high school.
N.C. Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-District 40, and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said she thinks equitable access to public education plays a role in maintaining the fabric of any democratic society.
“Sometimes we find that the post-secondary options for undocumented students are severely limited, which limits their future social and economic mobility, and this legislation further gives incentives for undocumented students to finish high school as it would provide affordable postsecondary school options,” she said.
N.C. Sen. Wiley Nickel, D-District 16, is also a primary sponsor of the bill. He said he's angry about President Donald Trump’s immigration policy and wants to communicate that immigration is an issue he cares about and is actively working on.
“I got elected as a progressive Democrat, and one of the big issues that we don’t get to talk a lot about on the state level is immigration policy. But for me, I’ve just been furious about the lack of federal immigration policy,” he said. “We wanted to do something to voice that frustration.”
Waddell said the bill would not provide DACA recipients with preferential treatment. Nickel echoed this, saying they would qualify for in-state tuition just like any other resident would.
“DACA recipients are North Carolinians and are entitled to, in this one way, the same benefit of public education as everybody else,” he said.
He said an item in the bill — which states that information obtained through the application process for in-state tuition would remain confidential — was included to alleviate many DACA recipients’ fear that providing sensitive information might lead to deportation.
Gomez Olvera described the bill as a step in the right direction.
“It would definitely help a lot of people, but also we don’t receive federal aid or state aid,” he said.
Nickel said he thinks DACA recipients should be eligible for state and federal aid, but that he is focusing on in-state tuition right now because he believes nearly everybody should agree it’s fair.
He said he will continue to advocate for SB 615 though it likely will never make it to committee.
“Here it’s an issue that Republicans in the General Assembly don’t really want to talk about, so we’re not expecting a lot of action to happen now on this bill," he said. "But the reason we file a bill like this is to get the conversation started and to get people talking about it and to put out the marker that if we win four more seats in the state Senate and are in charge, these are the bills that we’re going to file.”
Gomez Olvera said there has to be some sort of compromise between Democrats and Republicans. He said the bill’s opponents might not know DACA recipients’ personal stories.
“I feel like a person’s story is a big factor, plays a big role in how people view us because they hear about all the time, how we’re criminals or whatnot, and actually hearing an undocumented person’s point of view would probably change their mind because we all have goals and aspirations,” he said.
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