The following commentary was submitted by the Latino advocacy organization El Pueblo, the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals and Student Action with Farmworkers.

In April, a group of North Carolina legislators introduced HB 1183 so that undocumented students who had lived in the state for at least four years, graduated from a North Carolina high school, and been accepted into one of the state’s universities or community colleges would qualify as state residents for tuition purposes.

The bill received endorsements from former Gov. James B. Hunt, who is nationally recognized for his education legacy. Business leaders such as Jim Goodmon, statewide groups such as the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry’s Education Policy Committee, and the religious community such as the N.C. Council of Churches and Bishop Joseph Gossman, among others, lent their public support to this legislation. The bill, called “Access to Higher Education and a Better Economic Future,” was sponsored by Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), Paul Luebke (D-Durham), Jeff Barnhart (R-Cabarrus) and John Sauls (R-Harnett), along with over 20 cosponsors.

It was an effort to prevent the complete disenfranchisement and discouragement of students who have worked hard to learn the English language, excel in their studies, and become involved members of their communities. This bill was also an effort to think about the future of North Carolina over the next 10 years and work toward an educated, integrated community that is able to compete economically within the growing global and multilingual market.

The bill was not approved by our General Assembly this year, and wasn’t presented for a vote by the House of Representatives’ education committee.

El Pueblo, the N.C. Society of Hispanic Professionals and Student Action with Farmworkers are disappointed but not discouraged. We stand firm in our commitment to ensure education for all. And we use this opportunity to publicly reaffirm that this is a vital issue for our state.

Over the past few months, it has become apparent that much misinformation is being presented by a small group of individuals representing fringe groups. The rhetoric has been crafted to be intimidating and divisive. Threatening messages have been directed at the legislators supporting this bill, as well as some of our organizations and staff members. This clearly demonstrates the need for more understanding, as well as more education about who immigrants are and why they are part of North Carolina. It has also shown a need for more discussion about the challenges presented to our state when dealing with a broken and outdated immigration system that can only be fixed at the federal level.

Although the negative rhetoric dominated talk radio and spurred a negative backlash, it is important to note that the public also weighed in to support the bill through letters-to-the-editor, visits to legislators and public forums. Dozens of editorials were written by newspapers across the state strongly supporting the legislation. Groups of diverse political, religious and social affiliations publicly condemned the rhetoric and supported the bill. One scientific poll, conducted by Elon University, established that there was significant public support for the legislation. Nevertheless, the bill did not receive the needed support to be presented during this year’s session.

This is serious legislation. We recognize the fact that change does not happen quickly. However, we believe that there was much gained during the process not only for our community, but for all people in the state. We are proud that throughout this debate we have maintained our role as invested community organizations, dedicated to bridging differences when possible, and always working toward a stronger North Carolina. Dozens of groups, thousands of individuals and many churches have now joined the efforts begun by this bill to ensure that our state is truly one that strives for equal and fair opportunities for all of its people.

We thank the sponsors of HB 1183 as well as the dedicated advocates and North Carolinians who wrote letters and visited their legislators in support of this bill. Most of all, we are proud of our immigrant students who are graduating from schools across this state.

The debate is not over; indeed, it has just begun. The discussions that arose out of the bill were not just about HB 1183, but about immigration in general. They were also about the identity of our state. These are all necessary discussions that will challenge us, but that, we believe, will ultimately unify us.

El Pueblo, N.C. Society of Hispanic Professionals and Student Action with Farmworkers are steadfast in their intention to stay focused on a constructive dialogue that contributes to the strengthening of North Carolina. Healthy debate and discussion have always been a vital part of our democracy and the foundation for good public policy.

Marisol Jiménez, Advocacy Director

El Pueblo, Inc.

(919) 835-1525

Marco A. Zárate, President

Andrew Caamano, Board Member and Lobbyist

North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals

“Promoting Education among Hispanic Youth”

(919) 654-4516

Melinda Wiggins, Executive Director

Student Action with Farmworkers

(919) 660-3652