Raleigh, N.C. — A group of undocumented students and supporters met at the General Assembly Tuesday for an "UndocuGraduation" – an event intended to highlight the difficulties many face in paying for college.
Five of those students walked from Charlotte to Raleigh – 140 miles over the past nine days – to ask lawmakers to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from North Carolina high schools.
Such students would qualify for in-state tuition if they were legal citizens, but because they are not, they are charged the higher out-of-state rate. In addition, many can't get loans or scholarships because of their immigration status, so they have to pay for college out of their pockets.
For families already struggling to get by, said walker Rogelio Gallegos, college is often beyond their means.
Gallegos, 17, a rising senior at East Mecklenburg High School, said he's not sure how he and his sister will afford to continue their education. His family came to the U.S. from El Salvador when he was 6.
Like many in his generation, Gallegos is covered by DACA, or Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, a 2012 federal program that protects undocumented children brought to the U.S. from deportation as long as they're in school or the military or have graduated high school.
But DACA is a temporary program that does not confer legal immigration status.
"We're hard-working, and we're here for our education," Gallegos said. "We're not criminals. We just want to study here and be law-abiding citizens. But we're not citizens."
Walker Elver Barrios, 23, is now a student at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, but he struggled for five years to figure out how to afford college. He said he doesn't want others in his community to face the same hurdles.
"This is what we're willing to do for our education," Barrios told the crowd. "I walk because this is my future. I walk because this is my life."
Four valedictorians of Charlotte high schools this year are undocumented or DACA students.
Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, attended the rally. He works for the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system.
"I'm out here because some of my students are out here, students I've worked with and have known since they were very young," Meyer said. "They're out here standing up to say, 'We've gone through North Carolina schools, and we want the ability to have an affordable college education.'"
Last spring, House Democrats filed House Bill 904, a proposal for tuition equity for some immigrant students. It was never heard by committee. Meyer said he doesn't expect that to change in the waning days of this short session, but he's hopeful for 2015.
"We're trying to build relationships across party lines to find a coalition of people who would support this," he said. "Maybe we can finally have a committee meeting where these students can have their voices heard."