Charlotte + Dream Act = better economy?

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Charlotte's students are in trouble. Severe school budget cuts, teacher layoffs, and an endangered library system are putting the future quality of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's learning institutions in danger. Add this to decreasing, yet persistently high, drop-out rates, and it's clear we have a problem.

A recent Huffington Post article examines the implications of the nation's drop-out crisis:

Just 55 percent of Latino, 51 percent of African-American, and 50 percent of Native American students finish high school with a diploma...Reducing the dropout rate makes sense for individual students, but it also makes strong economic sense for the nation. For example, a study by the Alliance for Excellent Education finds that cutting the dropout rate in half for just one high school class in the nation's fifty largest cities would result annually in $4.1 billion in additional earnings, 30,000 additional jobs, and $5.3 billion in economic growth. That's an economic stimulus package that everyone should be able to get behind.

Minorities bear the brunt of this drop-out trend. In particular, many Latino students — including here in Charlotte — face an interesting dilemma. Many are not citizens and, since they do not qualify for loans or grants, know they cannot afford to pay for college. This is one of many factors contributing to high drop-out rates among the nation's young Hispanic population.

Paulina Ameneyro, co-valedictorian of Garinger's graduating class this year,is well-acquainted with this problem. As reported by The Charlotte Observer, Ameneyro has been accepted to both Queens University and N.C. State, but cannot afford to pay the out-of-state tuition her undocumented legal status requires of her. The article goes on to say that:

Thousands of other illegal immigrants face the same issue. Brought here by parents or relatives, an estimated 65,000 graduate from U.S. high schools each year only to face steep college bills without federal financial aid...

Eleven states have laws allowing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. They allow in-state rates if students graduate from state high schools and have two to three years residence in the state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In most, the student must sign an affidavit promising to seek legal status.

On the other hand, South Carolina in 2008 became the first state to ban illegal immigrants from attending state-supported universities.

Ameneyro's hope for a college degree rests with the Dream Act, proposed legislation to allow students to qualify for financial aid no matter what their legal status. Starting on May 28, candle-light vigils and acts of fasting occurred nationwide in support of passing the Dream Act, as reported by the local Spanish-language newspaper Mi Gente.

One vocal opponent of the act is Ron Woodard, director of the conservative immigration enforcement group N.C. Listen. His comments about Ameneyro's case are:

"It's wonderful for someone to try to get an advanced degree, but the first thing she's doing is taking a position at N.C. State that doesn't belong to her because she's not a citizen. I wonder what the person who would have gotten her space would say about her complaining about paying out-of-state tuition."

Others disagree:

Paulina is a perfect example of why it makes sense to have comprehensive immigration reform," said Ruben Campillo, N.C. director for Reform Immigration for America, an advocacy group seeking a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"We have many, many students like Paulina who are at the top of their classes.... They have embraced our values and culture, but they find at graduation that they won't be allowed to continue."

Charlotte attracts more and more Latinos each year. Some have papers and some do not, and the same goes for their children. Passing the Dream Act would be a motivating factor for these kids to not only stay in school but seek higher education, and ultimately be better prepared to contribute to Charlotte and its economy.

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