Supporters still want in-state tuition for NC illegal immigrants

By: - July 14, 2005 7:08 am

Lexington Dispatch
Associated Press Writer

Supporters of offering illegal immigrants in-state tuition to North Carolina’s public universities pledged Wednesday to keep fighting for the measure, offered by lawmakers in April with great expectations but defeated less than two months later without so much as a committee vote.

"We’re going to keep working until we get it done," said former Gov. Jim Hunt, the highest profile supporter of the bill. "They will not outlast us."

Hunt and about 200 others gathered to review how the bill failed to move forward during this year’s legislative session, with some meeting later to discuss their failed strategy.

The measure would have allowed illegal immigrants who attend state high schools for at least four consecutive years before graduation to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public universities and community colleges. The teenagers also would have to apply for legal immigration status to receive the resident rate.

Supporters expected no more than 1,300 applications from such students and just a few hundred to enroll in the first year.

But opponents quickly rallied against the issue and inundated talk radio and the Internet with complaints about a bill they believed would legitimize illegal immigration. At least nine lawmakers backed out as sponsors in the face of the opposition.

The crumbling support and public opposition surprised supporters, said Andrea Bazan-Manson, executive director of El Pueblo, a Hispanic advocacy group that pushed for the legislation. They had prepared for six years to get the legislation in a position for possible approval, she said.

Walking back from the press conference following the bill’s introduction, "I was already planning the bill signing with Gov. (Mike) Easley," Bazan-Manson said.

Instead, she and others on her staff, as well as bill sponsors, got a stream of intimidating threats that left some fearing for their safety, she said.

They also faced organized opposition led by William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, who pledged to continue lobbying on the issue.

He said Wednesday he doubted his opponents would be able to muster the same level of support again by 2007, the earliest the bill can be reintroduced.

"The legislators that I have talked to, the ones that are here already will remember it," Gheen said. "Many of the 26 legislators who remained on that bill, many of them will not be in Raleigh.

"Jim Hunt and El Pueblo can forget about in-state tuition."

Nine other states have already approved similar legislation, said Josh Bernstein, federal policy director for the National Immigration Law Center based in Washington, D.C. The political battles leading to passage have rarely gone smoothly, he said.

Bazan-Manson said she considers North Carolina an important battleground in the fight for immigrant rights. North Carolina has about 650,000 Hispanic residents. Many entered the country illegally, helping the state’s Hispanic population grow nearly 400 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to Census figures.

The state has the eighth-largest population of illegal immigrants in the nation, about 300,000, according to a report issued last month by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The state economy will eventually suffer if lawmakers don’t allow all students to earn degrees that lead to better-paying jobs, Hunt and Bernstein said. They also believe it is immoral to deny opportunities to children.

"We shouldn’t penalize the children who are here," Hunt said. "They didn’t come here of their own volition. Somebody brought them here. … Those children are now North Carolina’s children."

For now, Bazan-Manson said El Pueblo will continue raising scholarship money to pay out-of-state tuition for two students. One of the scholarships is being underwritten by a legislator who fears the political fallout of supporting the tuition bill, she said.

"That’s nothing," she said after the crowd applauded her group’s announcement of the scholarships. "It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s also frustrating."

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066