On Wednesday afternoon, dozens of high schoolers filed into the Statehouse and patiently waited for the fifth annual “undocugraduation” ceremony to kick off. After spending the morning lobbying legislators to support in-state tuition for undocumented students, they were participating in a faux-graduation spearheaded by the Adelante Education Coalition for College Tuition Equality, a campaign to raise awareness about tuition inequality.

One by one, donning graduation caps and robes, they marched to the front of the room and read aloud their names, schools, and goals for the future.

Their aim? To highlight the need for tuition equality regardless of immigration status.

There are an estimated forty-two thousand undocumented students within North Carolina’s school systems, but hundreds of high school graduates each year are barred from going to college because of its out-of-reach cost. Under state law, undocumented students are ineligible for in-state college tuition and instead have to pay the pricier out-of-state rate. It’s a requirement immigration advocates and students have long argued is prohibitively and unnecessarily expensive: at UNC-Chapel Hill, for instance, tuition and fees for full-time in-state undergrads amount to $8,898 a year; for out-of-state students, they’re $34,588.

That cost, high school senior Monserrat Perez told the INDY, can be a major deterrent for students eager to continue their education.

“A lot of students worry about having enough money for college,” Perez says. “And that can be a limitation for a lot of students. They have that mindset—that they won’t be able to pay for it. And that’s a barrier, That is a constant fear and struggle that each undocumented student goes through.”

For some students who can’t foot the bill, scholarships have helped turn the unthinkable into a reality, but they’re not without their own challenges. Senior Ingrid Mozqueda of Guilford got a full ride to Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., but she worries about leaving her family and wishes she could be closer to home
—concerns she wouldn’t have if she was granted in-state tuition for a North Carolina school. To help offset some of the costs that still remain (like paying for books, school supplies, and transportation), Mozqueda has set up a GoFundMe page.

“I’ve grown up in North Carolina; this has been my home,” she says. “North Carolina has been paying for my classrooms and for books from K through twelve, so I feel like this should be a big step to get in-state tuition. We’re fighting for that, because this is where your doctors come in, your lawyers come in. With out-of-state tuition, a lot of doors are closed.”

Their prospects are admittedly dim. Although in-state tuition equity bills have been filed in the House and Senate this year (both are currently in committee), they face an uphill battle. Both bills have only Democratic sponsors, and in a Republican-controlled legislature that has been openly hostile to immigrant’s rights, they are unlikely to move forward.

“We’re trying to work on getting Republicans to jump in and chime in, but we’re under no illusions,” says Eliazar Posada, a youth coordinator with El Centro Hispano.

Senator Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat and primary sponsor of the Senate education equity bill, spoke before the ceremony and recalled his parents’ journey from India to the United States.

“My parents were able to achieve the American dream, in which they have passed on a better life for me and my children than one that they had for themselves,” he said. “Today you all represent the great potential of the American dream. You are America, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise—whether it’s the president or members of this legislative body.”

In Chaudhuri’s state Senate district, he explained, one in every five residents are immigrants. “And in this moment, when I feel like we are fighting for the very soul of this country, that we are fighting for this great experiment called America, you must not give up,” he said.