Marchers seek federal OK for illegal immigrants to enroll in universities

Posted March 23, 2010 5:38 p.m. EDT
Updated March 23, 2010 7:06 p.m. EDT

— Two students who were accepted to Duke University but weren't allowed to enroll because of their immigration status were among a group marching through North Carolina Tuesday in support of a federal law to allow illegal immigrants to enroll at universities nationwide.

The students are walking about 1,500 miles from Florida to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the proposed Federal Dream Act. The bill would give conditional citizenship to undocumented high school graduates who were brought to the U.S. before they turned 16, based on their college attendance or military service.

"People's humanity should not be determined by a nine-digit number," said Juan Rodriguez, whose family immigrated from Cuba when he was 6.

"My father just wanted to give me and my siblings a better future, a better life," Rodriguez said.

Felipe Matos said his mother sent him to the U.S. from Brazil when he was 14.

"She got sick and she was a single mom, and the only thing that she could do was to send me over to the United States because that's where we had family," Matos said.

Both Rodriguez and Matos graduated in the top of their high school classes and were accepted to Duke. Then, a second letter from the university placed their acceptances on hold.

"You have all the qualities of a student that we are always looking for, but until you resolve your immigration status, unfortunately, we cannot allow you to register for classes," Rodriguez recalled the letter saying.

"I think that was one of the most discouraging things in my life," Matos said.

The students shared their stories during a rally at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. They plan to march in Raleigh next week and reach Washington by May.

William Gheen, organizer of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, opposes the Federal Dream Act.

"It would reward illegal alien families that break our laws. It would encourage more illegal immigration to the United States, and Dream Act is an overt attempt by amnesty supporters to use children as political pawns to prey upon the taxed generosities of Americans," Gheen said.

Lucy Vasquez, executive director of Amigos Internacional, a Latino advocacy group based in Wilmington, said the students targeted by the legislation had no say in coming to the U.S. illegally and should be allowed to receive an education now that they live in the country.

"We're not saying that the laws have to be changed to include everybody without exception. We're asking that these children be given that opportunity to seek higher education," Vasquez said.

The University of North Carolina system allows illegal immigrants to enroll at its 16 university campuses, and the state Board of Community Colleges gave final approval last week to a new policy that would allow illegal immigrants to enroll at the 58 two-year public colleges in North Carolina.