Shadows blanketed the worn concrete, making it difficult to discern the faces behind the handmade signs. The air was moist. The threat of rain loomed in the winter night’s sky.
Harmonized voices careened across Raleigh’s downtown corridor, carrying the chorus of the civil rights anthem: We Shall Overcome. We Shall Overcome.
The moment was composed, tranquil — what one might expect from a prayer vigil — but this was a protest against a bill to block undocumented immigrants from accessing higher education, and patience was not had by all.
“Can we hurry up the process? Can we do it today?!” cracked Viridiana Martinez, a high school graduate who grew up in Sanford N.C. after leaving Mexico with her family at the age of seven.
She is the blunt and outspoken leader of the N.C. Dream Team, a group of undocumented immigrants and their supporters who are dedicated to expanding rights for the state’s undocumented community.
The Dream Team, along with the Adelante Education Coalition and other supporters of immigrant rights, joined together Tuesday to speak out against HB 11, titled “No Postsecondary education/illegal aliens.”
The bill, introduced Jan. 27 in the N.C. House, would ban undocumented immigrants from the state’s universities and community colleges.
The debate about access to education for undocumented students has escalated in recent years. In 2004, the UNC system adopted new policy guidelines permitting undocumented students to attend its universities.
The North Carolina Community College System embraced the same policy in 2009 after receiving the results of a study it commissioned on the issue.
Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) introduced HB 11 last Thursday, setting off an email exchange between himself and N.C. Dream Team activist Ian Smith-Overman.
“I find it revolting that an American thinks that we should financially support people that cannot legally work in this country through taxpayer subsidized education,” wrote Cleveland in an email response to Smith-Overman.
“If you feel so strongly about this issue find an illegal and pay for their education at a private university.”
Rep. Cleveland could not be reached for comment.
In North Carolina, undocumented students are required to pay out-of-state tuition rates and are not eligible for financial aid. The IRS and the North Carolina Department of Revenue collect taxes from undocumented immigrants by issuing Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs, which function like a Social Security number.
Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive Raleigh-based think-tank, said it was “absurd” to suggest that undocumented immigrants are not part of the tax base.
“Anytime they buy anything they pay taxes,” he said. “When they buy gas they pay taxes. They subsidize our retirement system.”
On the national stage, the DREAM Act would give eligible undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16 a temporary legal status and an eventual path to citizenship for time spent in postsecondary education or military service.
The act passed the U.S. House of Representatives in December before narrowly failing in the U.S. Senate.
Back on the streets in Raleigh, Martinez suggested that lawmakers supporting the house bill do not see her and other undocumented immigrants as “human beings.”
“We could be his grandchildren,” Martinez said. “Our parents just want the best for us, and I’m sure he would have crossed the border too if he had to, to take care of his family.
“I think he has to put himself in our shoes and in the shoes of our parents. And he isn’t doing that.”
HB 11 is currently awaiting action in the N.C. House education committee, said Jordan Shaw, spokesman for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg).