Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect people interviewed for this story and their families.
For most 23-year-olds at UNCA, the recently concluded spring semester was a rite of passage, signaling the end of their college years and a big transition into the working world. But for sophomore Loida Ginocchio-Silva, it was just one more semester in a college career that stretches endlessly before her — assuming she could somehow manage to keep it going.
Born in Lima, Peru, she came to the U.S. with her family at age 13, speaking not a word of English. But she worked hard and, encouraged by some high-school teachers, took courses at Alamance Community College before transferring to UNCA in the fall of 2010. As an undocumented student, however, Ginocchio-Silva isn’t eligible for financial aid, and despite having lived in North Carolina for a decade, she’s charged out-of-state tuition. This spring, she was enrolled in one class, for which she says she paid about $2,000.
Ginocchio-Silva’s undocumented status also prevents her from finding stable employment. So she works odd jobs — dishwashing, baby-sitting — anything to help her cobble together her tuition payments. But that hasn’t cowed her spirit. “My intention is not to make anyone feel sad for me. I’m not afraid, and I’m not ashamed of being undocumented,” she explains. “That’s just a label that’s been imposed on me: I’m a human being, and that’s not who I am.”
Meanwhile, on Jan. 27, Rep. George Cleveland introduced HB 11, titled “No Postsecondary Education/Illegal Aliens,” which would have barred undocumented immigrants from attending North Carolina’s public universities and community colleges at all.
Concerned about the bill, a member of the NC DREAM Team, a statewide student group promoting immigrant rights, sent the Onslow County Republican an email stating, “It is saddening that one of our state’s representatives would go out of their way to deny a segment of our state’s population the right to educate and better themselves.”
According to the group’s website, Cleveland responded: “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. If you feel so strongly about this issue, find an illegal and pay for their education at a private university.”
Cleveland did not respond to requests for comment; the bill died in committee, but it could conceivably be revived as an amendment to another bill.
Ginocchio-Silva came to the U.S. with her mother and brother on April 21, 2001. Her father had applied for a religious-worker visa and planned to join the family later. But they made some mistakes in the application process that they were unable to correct later; and when the family’s tourist visa expired, they stayed on.
“My family came to the U.S. in hopes of giving my brother and me a better opportunity,” Ginocchio-Silva explains.
Since then, however, life has been a constant struggle for the family. Her father eventually joined them here, and each parent worked two jobs, taking whatever employment they could find. Financial pressures aside, undocumented residents live in constant fear of discovery and deportation. A particular concern is a section in the Immigration and Nationality Act called 287(g), which empowers local law-enforcement personnel to enforce federal immigration laws. The Henderson County Sheriff’s Office is one of the few such agencies in Western North Carolina that has a 287(g) program.
Asked about deportation and fears of racial profiling, Sgt. Mike Cox, the agent in charge of the local program, explained:
“If someone's arrested anywhere out in the public here and they're subject to come to our jail in Henderson County, there is a 287(g) officer that's assigned to every shift. Anybody that's arrested who's foreign-born is subject to screening. … We always want to know where they were born, what their date of birth is, medical conditions — and that's every single person that comes in, regardless of nationality. Deportation is such a lengthy process anyhow, there’s no way anyone could be deported the first time they’re arrested.”
For Ginocchio-Silva’s parents, however, these hardships only reinforced their dreams of a good education for their children. In her junior year of high school, Ginocchio-Silva began thinking about college. “I owe so much to a couple of my teachers,” she recalls. “They knew I had a hard time with the language, but they helped me believe in myself.”
But every college application she filled out asked for her Social Security number, and Ginocchio-Silva soon realized her troubles were far from over.
Despite these challenges, however, Ginocchio-Silva has found time to take an active role in campus life. Last school year, she served as vice president of Herman@s Orgullosos en Las Americas (“Proud Sisters and Brothers in the Americas”). HOLA focuses on immigration rights and educational equality for all undocumented students in Western North Carolina.
“It’s so important to be able to reach out to the Asheville community about the issues facing undocumented students. We must come together if we want to create change in North Carolina,” she declares.
In state/out of state
While Ginocchio-Silva struggles to make a dent in her tuition statements, other local students face similar challenges. Elena Rodriguez, an undocumented 18-year-old freshman at A-B Tech, hails from Honduras. She and her family emigrated to the United States when Rodriguez was 4.
"I barely remember Honduras: My family tells me stories about what it was like there, but it all seems so fuzzy to me now. I suppose I was really too young to remember the journey here," she reports.
Rodriguez always figured she’d go on to college after finishing high school. Many of her friends decided to earn associate's degrees at A-B Tech before transferring to a four-year college, to offset rising tuition costs. Rodriguez, however, was in for a surprise.
"I couldn't believe what I had to pay: I remember receiving my statement and my eyes getting so wide. I did not understand how this institution could charge me out-of-state tuition when I live with my family in Asheville."
Meanwhile, her friend Ramiro Diaz tried to register for a few classes at A-B Tech to take care of some prerequisites he would need for his associate’s degree — only to find out that under guidelines established by the UNC Board of Governors, he had to wait till every documented student had registered before he could sign up for whatever courses were still available.
“I was so nervous I wasn’t going to get any of the classes I needed,” he recalls. “I watched as class after class closed and wondered if I would even be able to register for anything.” Diaz washes dishes and buses tables at a downtown Asheville restaurant, struggling to make ends meet.
“I know I need to finish school so I can make a better life for myself, which is why I enrolled in community college in the first place. But with the school policies for undocumented students the way they are, I don’t know if I ever will get anywhere,” he reveals.
A free ride?
In the last 10 years, the nation’s Hispanic population has soared, from 35.3 million to 50.5 million. In the 2010 census, Hispanics accounted for 56 percent of the total population increase — far outstripping earlier projections. And according to the Pew Hispanic Center, nine of the 12 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations are in the Southeast, led by North Carolina and Georgia. Most of these people are legal residents, but there are about 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., the Pew Center estimates, the majority of them Hispanic.
Against that backdrop, there’s a growing hostility toward illegal immigrants. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of groups that “go beyond mere advocacy of restrictive immigration policy to actually confront or harass suspected immigrants” jumped from 173 to 309, according to a 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled “Rage on the Right.”
Unauthorized immigrants, opponents say, take jobs away from legal residents and take unfair advantage of taxpayer-funded educational and health-care systems. Apparently, some of Diaz’s and Rodriguez’s classmates share those sentiments.
“The tuition increase and class-selection process is fair, because these people aren’t legal citizens,” A-B Tech sophomore Elizabeth Montgomery maintains. “The individuals who are here legally should have first choice when choosing their college classes and should rightfully be charged less for tuition. Education is not a right — it’s a privilege,” she declares.
Hendersonville resident Laura Adams, an A-B Tech student who soon plans to transfer to UNCA, agrees. “I don’t go into other countries demanding to be educated,” she points out. “If they don’t like tuition increases, maybe they should have thought about that before coming to a country illegally and expecting to be treated like an American citizen.”
Lisa Goldstein, a junior at N.C. State, sees HB 11 as a step in the right direction. “Why should I be responsible for paying someone’s tuition who shouldn’t even be in this country anyway?” she asks. “There are so many ways to come to this country legally, it’s disgraceful and uncalled-for for illegal immigrants to think they deserve a free ride,” she proclaims.
One child’s dream
Amid these difficulties, HOLA (which means “hello” in Spanish) hosted a wide-ranging series of events this past year, including an immigrant film series, a poetry-slam night and an evening devoted to the stories and struggles of undocumented immigrants in Western North Carolina.
“This was such a great opportunity for students to come forward and have the chance to talk about how their lives have been shaped,” notes co-President Marcela Garza.
“I think we had a very good year,” says former President Paty Tomas, “but we always need to get more people involved.” Both Garza and Tomas are U.S. citizens.
The group kicked off the summer with a Salsa Night celebrating the end of the spring semester. They’re also hatching plans to attend several education rallies in Raleigh this summer.
Meanwhile, HOLA is seeking donations to its scholarship fund. According to OnCampus Research, 58 percent of Latino high-school students in the U.S. don’t see college in their future. HOLA aims to do something about that — one student at a time.
“We choose one undocumented high-school student a year who is making commendable progress in school and within the community,” Tomas explains. “Since tuition is so high these days, we want to help any way we can to make sure at least one child’s dream of going to college comes true.”
Students submit nominations to a board made up of UNCA faculty members, which decides who gets the money. This past year, the group raised roughly $2,000 via community donations, awarding the scholarship to Ginocchio-Silva.
Face to face
HOLA members are also involved in a variety of other projects and Latino groups in the Asheville area, including COLA, Nuestro Centro, Defensa Comunitaria and TELASH — a local Spanish-language theater company.
“We are focused on Latino advocacy, but you do not have to be of Latino descent to join. In fact, we encourage all people to come and learn more about our culture and our people,” Garza explains.
Meanwhile, Ginocchio-Silva has decided to suspend her slow plod toward a college degree. “That doesn’t mean I won’t be back,” she explains. “But the way the situation is now, I feel I’m being taken advantage of. I pay taxes to the federal government and to North Carolina; for the Department of Revenue, I’m in-state, but for the Department of Education, I’m out-of-state. I deserve equal access to education: I refuse to feed that system anymore.”
Accordingly, Ginocchio-Silva has a message for her fellow immigrants and the community at large: “If we’re to change things in WNC, we can’t do it hiding in the shadows. All over the U.S., this is happening more and more: We’re part of this country, and we’re demanding our rights.”
— North Carolina native Christina McIntyre Ayala is a junior at Western Carolina University. To learn more about HOLA, visit http://holaunca.wordpress.com.