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Voting Rights Protection, DREAM Act Raised in Constitution Day Forum

Anita Earls is the founder and director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.Anita Earls is the founder and director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

DURHAM, N.C. – Voter suppression is still an issue, said panelists during the Constitution Day discussion at North Carolina Central University. The panel discussed an attempt by some in the North Carolina Legislature to pass a voter ID law. “Our democracy depends on citizen involvement,” noted Charles Becton, the interim chancellor of the university. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the active voters in the state do not have a photo ID card.

The Constitution Day event, entitled “Inclusion/Exclusion: Poverty, Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” also focused on immigration, education, healthcare and sexual orientation.

Bob Hall, who heads Democracy North Carolina, noted that there was also an effort in the Legislature to cut back on early voting and same day registration. For the most part, Republican legislators pushed for a tighter voter registration requirement. Hall said that the Republican-controlled legislature wanted to spend millions of dollars on voter fraud, but there was little evidence of fraud — less than five cases per million of votes cast. Hall noted voter ID would disproportionally target minorities, the poor, the elderly and students.

Anita Earls, founder and director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said she had also observed an increase in “acts of suppression to keep people from voting in the state.

“There are more efforts to challenge voters’ rights on Election Day, such as challenging those having the same name of someone else,” she said.

During the Immigration panel, Jose Rico Benavides, an undocumented 23-year-old community college student, told about organizing the N.C. Dream Team, an activist organization for undocumented immigrant youth. Benavides was brought to the U.S. as a child and has become a leader in the state’s immigrant rights movement. Benavides, who made good grades in school, wanted to graduate from a four-year college but has found closed doors. He hopes the N.C. Dream Team is raising awareness for immigrant children who were not born in, but brought into the country. Government statistics indicate that 65,000 immigrant students graduate from high school each year with few options for higher education.

During the Access to Higher Education panel, speakers noted that college was more accessible, it was also more expensive. “A college education is increasing the price of admission to the middle class,” said Steve Carbo, who serves as a State Advocacy Director at Demos. The organization supports public policy changes that eliminate barriers to political participation, and provides policy makers with research. Carbo noted that almost two-thirds of the jobs that the country will add by 2018 will require post-secondary education. Also, nearly 60 percent of the jobs in North Carolina will require some post-secondary education by 2018.

While college graduation rates in North Carolina had increased, those at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still lag. At UNC-Chapel Hill, 89 percent of students graduate in six years. At the average four-year institute in the state, 59 percent of students graduate in that amount of time. The average graduation rate within six years at North Carolina’s HBCUs is 50 percent.

Carbo noted that the debt rate for all students has grown, but the issue was becoming a major problem for students at HBCUs. Nationally, 52 percent of college students have federal loans to repay upon graduation. Throughout North Carolina, 45 percent of students have federal loans. At the state’s HBCUs, 72 percent of the students have federal loans to repay.

During the Education session, Taiyyaba Qureshi with the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, shared information about Halifax County, one of the state’s poorest counties and one of the most segregated. Only about 30 percent of the county’s students pass the required End of Grade test. Qureshi said many students suffer in life not just because they are poor, but of certain factors. “These include lack of infrastructure, such as electricity and water, segregated school districts, environmental hazards, such as living near a landfill, and substandard housing,” she said.

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