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North Carolina Group Keeps College Goals Alive for ‘Dreamers’

SANFORD, N.C. — As a high school sophomore and DACA recipient, the connections Danny Rodas made through his mentorship program were invaluable to helping him understand the challenges he would face paying for college.

Ricky HurtadoRicky Hurtado

“I first found out I couldn’t receive [public] financial aid through public institutions” from the North Carolina Scholar Latino Initiative (NC Sli), he said. “I was never told that until I had a conversation with other students at the Sli event.”

Having that conversation early on helped him focus on securing scholarships from private institutions, Rodas said. NC Sli also assisted by providing writing workshops that helped make his scholarship essays more competitive. Today, at 21, he is a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., and wants to be a lawyer. He’s paying the $48,000 required for tuition and living expenses mostly through the Bonner scholarship, an award for students committed to service and with a high need for financial aid.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protects upwards of 800,000 young persons like Rodas, undocumented immigrants who came into the United States as children from deportation. The program, created in an executive order by President Obama, faces an uncertain future after President Trump announced plans last year to end it and members of Congress negotiate to come to an agreement about the program and other immigration issues before a March deadline.

NC Sli has helped connect many other first-generation Latino high school students like Rodas with resources and information to transition to college. It works with 125 students and their families. In 2017, all of NC Sli’s seniors graduated from high school and 90 percent of them went on college. Students got more than $1.5 million in merit-based aid.

But now NC Sli’s executive director, Ricky Hurtado, is worried those numbers could plummet. Trump’s action to abolish DACA could rip the 15 percent of NC Sli students who are so-called dreamers away from their adopted country and everything they know.

“We give a promise that if they [students and families] follow our curriculum and engage in academics like we tell them to, this will ultimately work out,” said Hurtado, 29. “This year, we haven’t been able to say that. There is so much uncertainty.”

Started in rural North Carolina, NC Sli, which is based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Global Initiatives, provides Latino immigrants with financial, emotional and social support to expand educational access and equity.  

“It was created around an issue of a new emerging population in North Carolina popping up in all corners of the state, especially in rural parts, given the demand in terms of jobs and who was filling those jobs,” Hurtado said. The Hispanic population rose by 394 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to UNC’s School of Education. “Many were realizing the barriers their immigration status had for them as they were graduating from high school and seeking to continue on into college,” he said.

North Carolina’s Hispanic population continues to rise. It is home to 890,000 Hispanics, which is 9.2 percent of the state’s population and roughly 1.6 percent of the country’s population, according to the United State Census. North Carolina has the 11th-highest population of Hispanics in the country.

Although Hurtado was born in the United States, his upbringing is similar to that of many of the students served. His parents were born in Honduras and fled to the United States in the 1980s to escape violence. They eventually settled in rural Sanford, where his father found a job as a driver in waste management and his mother worked at a poultry plant.

NC Sli is in 11 high schools across four counties. High school sophomores are matched for three years with college mentors who are students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Eighty percent of Latinos growing up [in North Carolina] will be the first in their household to go to college,” Hurtado said. “It’s a huge asset to have that sort of support. To have someone who looks like you, sounds like you, says, ‘I’ve had a similar experience and this is how I did it.’”

Paul Cuadras, who co-founded NC Sli in 2002, said DACA isn’t perfect. North Carolina, like some other states, doesn’t provide in-state tuition for its dreamers. That means DACA recipients like Rodas would have to spend $34,588 for a year at UNC-Chapel Hill — as opposed to in-state tuition at a fraction of the cost at $8,898. Dreamers aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, so it is a high barrier for them to access higher education in the state.

But Hurtado said NC Sli found work-arounds for restrictive policies. They identified dreamers like Rodas early, so they had more time to alter their college strategies and focus on private institutions. And they provided resources such as help with scholarship and essay writing to make those students more competitive for the private scholarships they would apply for.

But most importantly, DACA provided basic protection from deportation and the opportunity to travel safely with a driver’s license and eventually the ability to work legally.

Without DACA, students couldn’t legally drive to Sli college workshops or anywhere else, Cuadras said. Any time students were stopped by the police, they could be facing deportation. They’d have to go back to living in the shadows.

North Carolina’s entire economy could stand to lose if DACA isn’t renewed, according to The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. The institute predicts that ending DACA could cost North Carolina $7.8 billion over the next decade.

Hurtado said he is already seeing potential going to waste as high school students decide to alter their plans to pursue higher education.

“Eliminating DACA would eliminate the ‘hope factor’ that keeps our students fighting for their education and work prospects every day,” Hurtado said. “We’ve already seen students change their plans post-high school or hesitate to plan long-term given the uncertainty of the future.”

That’s true of Emy Rodas, Danny’s younger sister. She’s an NC Sli mentee and a junior at Jordan-Matthews High School in rural Siler City, N.C. She was born in Guatemala. Danny and her other brother, Kevin, 23, are both DACA beneficiaries. But before she could apply on her 16th birthday – dreamers must be older than 15 and under 31 to apply – Trump rescinded the program.

Although a federal appeals judge recently issued a nationwide injunction to restart the program, it applies only to those with existing dreamer status, not those like Emy who would be applying for the first time.

Emy had hoped to someday become a veterinarian or a nurse. But now, even though she adores her Sli mentor, without knowing whether or not she’d be able to work, it’s hard for her to imagine college in her future.

“If DACA would be cancelled, I would have to cancel my future plans,” said Emy. “If DACA were abolished, then I wouldn’t have permission to work.”

If DACA isn’t renewed, Sli and other organizations in North Carolina will have to alter their strategies to support their students.

Hurtado said Sli would be forced to explore expanding advocacy efforts for a legal defense fund, to give them the capacity to offer greater services. They’d have to advocate more on the policy level to continue supporting their students.

In addition, he said, Sli would have to refocus more within their network to raise money for scholarships. Although DACA recipients don’t get in-state tuition or federal financial aid, they still have more benefits when applying for scholarships than students without a protected status, so fundraising would become even more important.

“There are differences in eligibility for certain private scholarships, and undocumented students can’t benefit from certain policies at the community college [level] that DACA students can for tuition breaks,” Hurtado said.

But even for those who make it to college, like Danny, it could be harder to graduate if there are no protections in place. If the program isn’t renewed, his brother Kevin, who is helping to support him with $5,000 a year for his tuition, would lose his job. Even if Danny could continue and accomplish his dream of becoming a lawyer, he doesn’t know if he’d be able to work here.

“My work permit expires a month after I graduate from Guilford,” he said. “I don’t know what the rules will be.”

This story, second in a series, originally appeared in Youth Today.

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