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Immigration activists look to city council for help with state reform

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

Councilman James Taylor Jr., who represents the Southeast Ward, wants Winston-Salem City Council to pass a resolution in support of state legislation that would allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition at North Carolina universities and community colleges.

Undocumented students currently pay the equivalent of out-of-state rates for tuition and fees — more than three times the standard amount for in-state students.

The effort follows a bruising battle to pass a resolution in support of overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a somewhat less divisive resolution opposing the marriage amendment referendum that North Carolina voters passed last year. Members have in the past clashed less on the issues at hand than on whether council should be involved in matters that do not directly impact city government.

“It burns me up when people say that when we take up these issues, like Citizens United, they try to say that we’re not focusing on what we need to focus on,” Taylor said in an interview last week. “If it affects one or one thousand citizens in this city, then it’s worth our city council’s attention. Even though we can’t directly influence it, we can speak for our citizens and we should.”

Taylor said the current law, which makes education at state-supported universities and community colleges significantly more expensive for undocumented students, directly affects his constituents.

“I think the state is creating a socioeconomic caste system,” he said. “It’s trickling down to our local municipalities and affecting our quality of life. I have the most diverse ward in the city of Winston-Salem. It’s one-third African-American, onethird Hispanic and one-third Caucasian.

The way to vanquish the socio-economic system is through education, and we can’t do that if we don’t allow our residents to get an education.”

Taylor added that people who live in wealthy communities are less likely to see the harmful effects of an uneducated population than those who live in workingclass communities, who must contend with the scourges of crime and drugs that flourish when people are denied educational and employment opportunities.

Councilman Dan Besse, Taylor’s colleague in the Southwest Ward, said he personally supports the position that anyone who graduates from a North Carolina high school and is a state resident should receive in-state tuition without any inquiry into their legal status. But, as with Citizens United, Besse said in-state tuition is not an appropriate issue for the city council to take up.

“There are matters of real import to our immigrant residents that our city needs to spend its time and effort working on — fair housing, economic opportunities, a transportation system that works for everybody regardless of their financial resources — that could make a real difference to the people in our community that are new immigrants,” Besse said. “This is an issue — tuition at community colleges and universities —that we can’t control. I get terribly frustrated about the time and attention that we’re asked to divert without any beneficial effect. I’d rather be spending our time working on issues of substance that we can actually change at the city level.

“Sad to say,” he added, “the leaders of the General Assembly don’t give a hoot about what we say about immigration. If they did, I might need to rethink my position.”

The efforts to get the city council to pass a resolution in support of HB 904 have been led by el Cambio, a group of undocumented young people and supporters with significant alliances in the LGBT community that is based in Yadkin County.

Members have been lobbying Republican lawmakers, who represent the conservative, rural areas where they live, but so far all of the sponsors of the proposed legislation are Democrats.

Wooten Gough with El Cambio said the group selected Winston-Salem as a target for its organizing initiative because it’s the closest nearby city and has the largest percentage of Hispanic residents of any in the state. Also, Gough said that a resolution from council would demonstrate support to entice Sen. Pete Brunstetter, who represents Yadkin County and part of Forsyth County, to sign on to the bill.

More than a fifth of the 53,500 students in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, some of whom are graduating this month, are Hispanic. The school district does not track how many are legal residents or undocumented.

Reps. Pricey Harrison and Marcus Brandon of Guilford County are the two Triad lawmakers who have signed on signed on to the bill, which also has support from Democrats in Durham, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Lumberton.

The bill did not survive crossover, the period at which leadership of the two legislative chambers determines which non-budget related bills will be considered throughout the rest of the session.

“This is, unfortunately, a very controversial issue,” Harrison said in an e-mail.

“I have been working on it since 2005. I doubt it will go anywhere soon. I am not sure my colleagues even support these kids attending the UNC system or community college, even at out-of-state tuition.”

Several people showed up at city council on Monday, some in graduation caps and gowns, to support the resolution, including members of el Cambio and Occupy Winston-Salem, along with people active in the Forsyth County Democratic Party.

The Hispanic League is also backing the resolution. The board of directors recently presented a letter to Mayor Allen Joines at the league’s annual Spanish Nite Gala seeking council support for undocumented students.

“Promoting greater access and affordability to education through in-state tuition for undocumented students has a long-term impact on North Carolina and the country’s economic strengths,” the letter said. “It increases our state’s intellectual capital, ensures the best use of resources and talent through the continuation of an already-made investment in K-12 education and the contributions that an educated society makes to society.”

Joines said he is polling council members to see how they feel about taking up the issue. He said he is conscious of a guideline restricting council to matters that directly impact city government, but said many proposed resolutions fall in a gray area. Joines added that the in-state tuition issue might meet the threshold through its connection to workforce development.

Erendira Méndez, a Greensboro resident and employee of Faith Action International, told the Winston-Salem City Council that her parents brought her to the United States after he father lost his leg in a work-related accident because they believed their children could have a better education.

“Working minimum wage they were able to send me to college paying out-ofstate tuition after I graduated for a whole year,” Méndez said. “Working minimum wage — and keep in mind that my father does not have a leg, so physically he was not able to work more than 35 hours, even if he wanted to. Life happens, and we decided not to continue that dream. I became a mother, happily married for six years. Now I’m in a position of my parents. I’m in the position of seeing the importance every day of an education for her to have a better future.”

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