Undocumented students rally for in-state tuition

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 10:47 PM

When Keny Murillo was only 9 years old, he spent two months with his father and uncle trying to reach the U.S.-Mexico border from Honduras. They tried legally to enter the States before, but their multiple requests had been rejected.

They slept in corn fields in the dead of winter. They got robbed while on the road. And while crossing the Rio Grande in January of 2004, Murillo was pulled out of the water by a border patrol agent.

His family never went to the court date that would have sent them back to their native country. Almost a decade later, Murillo dreams of going to medical school and becoming a doctor, but he must pay out-of-state tuition because of his undocumented status.

Murillo and other undocumented students in North Carolina are part of N.C. Dream Team, an organization of undocumented youth and allies fighting for immigrant rights. This past week, they amped up their movement for in-state tuition for undocumented students.

As the law stands now, an undocumented student attending a North Carolina university or college must pay out-of-state tuition.

Murillo, who went to elementary school in Durham and now lives in Creedmoor, is attending Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. If he received in-state tuition, he said, he could have attended UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State. He was in the top 10 of his graduating class at Granville Central High, but had little access to scholarships and schools because of his status.

For Wake Tech, tuition alone for 16 or more credit hours costs $4,216 for out-of-state students, compared to $1,144 for N.C. residents.

“All this stuff was very heartbreaking and stressful,” Murillo said. “I kept waiting for laws and policies to change, but no. I had graduated from high school, but nothing. ... My dream was all of a sudden blurry.”

Last week, the Dream Team launched a petition and phone call blitz directed at N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, the UNC Board of Governors and N.C. Community College System.

UNC’s guidelines on the admission of undocumented students has been consistent with state and federal law since 2004, said Peter Hans, UNC Board of Governors chairman, in an email.

The university does not have the statutory authority to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students, Hans said, and could not charge them in-state tuition rates without a change in state law.

The N.C. Community College System’s response to Dream Team efforts is similar. According to spokeswoman Megen Hoenk, the state board doesn’t have the legal authority to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students. Decisions will be based on any changes made within the N.C. General Assembly.

On Saturday, Dream Team students picketed outside an Equality NC Foundation Gala in Greensboro, attended by Cooper. They greeted him at the back door, asking for an answer, and he promised he’d get back to them, Murillo said.

The office of Attorney General Cooper has not issued a comment at this time, according to spokeswoman Noelle Talley on Wednesday.

“We’re waiting for a response,” Murillo said. “Does he support equality for all or not?”

Jacob Vigdor, a Duke professor of public policy and economics specializing in immigration and migration, said in-state tuition for immigrants is both a political and economic debate.

Students pay less if they receive the in-state rate, but that reduction might enable them to afford and attend college in the first place, he said.

“The notion that you want to withhold in-state tuition from these folks is really kind of punishing them for something their parents did,” Vigdor said.

Political opposition isn’t going to say these students deserve punishment, he added. Rather, that “it’s a slippery slope here, and if we start making life seem more easy, it’s going to encourage more parents to cross the border.”

Marta Sánchez, a research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy who works with undocumented families, said these young activists have become a voice for undocumented students who feel they have to remain “silent about their future” and feel as if they don’t have a place to talk about their experiences.

As of the end of this summer, 16 states have provisions allowing in-state tuition for undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey’s legislature is close to passing its own Dream Act for in-state tuition.

“We cannot afford to waste anybody’s brain, we just can’t,” Sánchez said. “And I think that the role of Dreamer activists (is) to keep challenging us and waking us up to that reality, making us understand the urgency with which we must act."