Christian Diaz, Staff Writer
As an undocumented student, Loida Ginnochio-Silva is required to pay out- of-state tuition at UNCA despite living in North Carolina ever since she was 13, when her parents brought her into the country illegally. Now 23, Ginnochio-Silva takes one class per semester. She pays $2,000 for each course and, at this point, does not know when she will graduate.
When Ginocchio-Silva considered Warren Wilson College, she discovered that there was no opportunity for undocumented students to apply. If House Bill 11 passes through state legislature, Ginnochio- Silva will soon be denied access to any state institution of higher education.
Immigrant youth suffered an incredible loss after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act – a piece of federal legislation to allow citizenship for undocumented youth who choose to attend college or enlist in the military – failed to pass through the Senate last December.
Now an empowered offensive front is expected from newly elected Republican-majority state governments across the country. In a time when hate group activity has seen a significant increase nationally, especially in the South, with its high levels of illegal immigration, undocumented youth are more weary than ever.
House Bill 11 has been introduced in the North Carolina House of Representatives. The bill would effectively segregate state education by requiring a social security number for a person to be accepted into a state institution of higher learning, including community colleges such as AB Tech. The bill is met by a newly elected republican majority and immigrant rights groups fear the odds are stacked against them. State Representative George Cleveland, who proposed the bill, has said that the mere idea of allowing undocumented immigrants from pursuing higher education through state institutions is “revolting.”
The argument that drives the fervent anti-immigration movement is related to the new age of austerity following the 2008 recession. Anti-immigration groups argue that undocumented immigrants, who they call “illegal immigrants,” take advantage of state-subsidized education, seeing this as an example of how undocumented immigrants are sucking state resources.
The North Carolina Department of Revenue, however, has been collecting income tax from undocumented people for more than a decade using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) since 1996.
An undocumented (also “unafraid and unashamed”) UNCA student and activist, Ginocchio-Silva spoke to The Echo about how immigrant rights groups in North Carolina are responding to the crisis and how the Warren Wilson community can contribute to the struggle for civil rights.
What’s the atmosphere like in your community now that HB11 is being considered?
Well, it depends. There are some friends I have who have been very discouraged since the DREAM Act vote in December [...] Some of them have gotten quite depressed about the DREAM Act not passing. Other friends have taken [lawmakers’ failure to pass the DREAM Act] as encouragement to fight even harder. I do have friends who are saying that we are not going to give up just because things are getting harder with a new general assembly. It does not mean we are going to give up and let HB11 happen. If we don’t speak for ourselves, nobody else is going to do it. We’re ready for whatever legislation and we’re ready to fight it so that it doesn’t happen.
You bring up this idea of speaking up for yourself. That’s difficult, being undocumented, because if you want to call a legislator and tell them that this bill is wrong, would your voice even be heard if you can’t say that you’re a registered voter?
The thing is that under the law we are not considered citizens and we understand that and we are aware of that but we consider ourselves North Carolinans and we consider ourselves tax-payers. It’s just that we don’t have a little paper that proves we are citizens. We do everything that any other North Carolina citizen does. We attend the same schools, shop at the same places, we pay our taxes.
Having that in mind, when we call legislators we call stating that we are the future of North Carolina and we ask that we don’t get ignored. If legislators and senators and the general assembly are pretending that we are not here, that doesn’t mean they are get- ting rid of us. We’ve been here for years and we are planning on staying and contributing to North Carolina.
Also I think it’s very important for us as immigrant youth to speak up for ourselves. For many years we have had immigrant- rights advocates who are doing an amazing job, and we are very grateful for that. We wouldn’t be able to do anything without our allies and supporters but there comes a time when you have to speak for yourself because nobody else can do it with the same passion as you do because you see injustice happening every day, you feel it. I feel it every day and nobody else is going to be able to feel that as much as I do or as much as any other undocumented person does. It doesn’t matter how much [a documented person] understands the situation, they can’t speak for us. It’s time for immigrant youth to start taking that lead and start taking that leadership role in the movement and saying “enough is enough, I’m going to speak up for myself. I’m going to fight for myself.”
We bring a different perspective as immi- grant youth. I think it’s very important for us to speak up because our parents are not necessarily in a position to do so. They don’t feel that comfortable and are very afraid to voice that, just as much as we are but when you have children to feed at home, when you have a family who is waiting for you to help them financially back in your home country you can’t really come out and say “my name is Salazar, I’m undocumented” because at the end of the day you have fam- ily to feed. That’s where I think the role to speak up for our parents, for our communities lies in immigrant youth.
How are the groups you work with responding and organizing them- selves to make sure HB11 does not become the law?
With HOLA we are hosting outreach events here in student community [at UNCA]. For example last Thursday we had an event where three undocumented students shared their stories for the first time publicly in front of a lot of strangers which was very courageous of them to do. They shared how they moved here and what their situations are now. We had a work- shop which demonstrated some patterns in education rights. What we are trying to do as much as possible is raising awareness here on campus. We are trying to get the profes- sors and the student community to support us, to join us.
I am also part of Nuestro Centro and in the Defensa Comunitaria program we have decided that one of our focuses this year will be access to higher education. With that group I am also helping to get high school youth involved. We want to have high school youth paint a mural [in Asheville] with the focus being on access to higher education.
Statewide, I am also part of the North Carolina Dream Team and we are also a community group of undocumented students and any other allies and supporters who really want to activate immigrant youth to lead the immigrant rights movement. We did a lot of work to support the DREAM Act but more recently we are doing a lot of events against HB11. We are organizing a “Coming Out of the Shadows” event in Greenesboro, more with the message of “we are undocumented and we are unafraid and unashamed.”
What is the role of college students in this fight for civil rights?
I think that it is so important to have students and youth involved in this movement especially because college students can vote. Just voting for legislators who will not deny access to higher education to undocumented students sends a message. You have the voting power that we do not, unfortunately. There is such an energy and so many re- sources that we as students have that we can use to raise awareness in the community. I think it’s very important to be involved.
With that in mind it’s also good for students to keep in mind that we have to work alongside immigrants and not lead the movement. We can’t speak for the immigrant community, we have to work shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand with immigrants. Real change won’t happen unless undocumented youth come out and speak for themselves and lead the movement because we are the ones who are directly affected. I’m also a student, and this applies to me as well.
Why is there such a strong resistance to assimilating immigrants into our society?
Seeing change around you is scary. When- ever you see that suddenly a lot of people speak Spanish and suddenly wherever you call you have to press one for English and two for Spanish. Suddenly you see brown people walking around everywhere. Change is naturally scary for any community and any society. I think that a lot of people react to that in ways like our politicians are. They are recessing what the community is feeling, and they are afraid. They’re afraid of North Carolina being number two in states with the most new immigrants.
One thing that makes people resist is that they don’t know what undocumented immigrants contribute to the community. Or if they know, they want to keep us underground and pretend that we are not here yet economically contributing to the state. The IRS and the North Carolina Department of Revenue do issue a taxpayer identification number (ITIN) so that we can file our income taxes at the end of the year even though we aren’t citizens. On one hand they’re telling us “we’re going to give you this number because we know you’re here and we know you’re working.” But on the other hand they’re saying “no you can’t access any benefits, including subsidized higher education.” We are contributing equally as any other citizen of North Caro- lina and it’s quite ridiculous that they are ignoring that fact.
A lot of politicians don’t know this. I can tell you one time some of the DREAM Team members went to talk to Senator Elena Kagan because one of her reasons for not supporting the DREAM Act was that she “wanted to protect the taxpayers of North Carolina.” We went to one of her events and one of the members took their ITIN card, the card that is given when you are issued a taxpayer identification number and she showed it to her and said “Senator Kagan, you want to protect the taxpayers of North Carolina. Well here is my taxpayer identification number, I am a taxpayer as well. Why are you not also considering the undocumented tax payers of North Caro- lina?” Her response was that she meant she wanted to protect the “legal” taxpayers of North Carolina. That to us is ridiculous!
How can you be an illegal taxpayer if the IRS issues you that number?
There are a lot of questions that need to be raised because the state and the country is being built on the back of immigrant labor. Companies and corporations benefit from our cheap labor, and they know that they can take advantage of us because we are afraid of them reporting us because of our status.Whenever state and federal resources are denied to us you have to raise some questions about why this is happening and who is benefiting from them and why?
How would you challenge Warren Wilson students to support the immigrant rights movement?
I think it will start with your own campus. As I have mentioned several times when I’ve been to Warren Wilson, currently undocumented students cannot attend Warren Wilson College because it’s a work college and you have to prove that you can work in the USA legally. You guys could start changing that and working on changing the application so that undocumented students can attend Warren Wilson College. I’m not saying that there are 20,000 students are lined up to attend Warren Wilson college and that we can’t because of that policy, but it does make a strong statement to us when you do include an option for us to attend the school. It is quite sad that in North Carolina you are one of two private colleges that doesn’t have an option for undocumented students to attend the school.
We challenge you also to step out of the campus and meet more immigrants. Join us in Nuestro Centro, join us in any community outreach center. Join us because we need you and we want to work with you so much. We welcome your help and support. I would challenge to you to get involved and also to vote. Don’t forget to vote.