Camila Lopez was running out of money. An unauthorized immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Henderson County, she’d been working — illegally and under the table — to earn money for her classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. But, she said, even after working six or seven days a week at some Hendersonville-area restaurants, she couldn’t save enough for school after paying for rent and food.

And then, on June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum, known as DACA.

The law gives people like Lopez — who were brought into the United States illegally as children — the privilege to apply for a renewable, two-year deportation exemption. DACA doesn’t grant them permanent citizenship, nor is it a route to citizenship. But it allows these residents to apply for a driver’s license, a Social Security number and a job. In January, the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office released a memo [PDF, via] stating that students coming to the United States illegally cannot get in-state tuition in North Carolina. Attorneys added that the General Assembly would have to change state law in order to grant in-state tuition to these students.

A straight-A student studying computer engineering and electrical engineering, Lopez (not her real name; see editor’s note below) now works making electrical components at an Asheville manufacturing plant.

She said she is earning far better money than she did in her restaurant jobs, and she has benefits. She’s able to get ahead, and she believes she has a future with the company, she said in a recent interview.

“I just want to be there so that when I graduate, I can move up,” she said.

A graduate of North Henderson High School, she’s been living in the U.S. since she was 11. As children, she and her brother went door to door in their neighborhood selling the dishes their mother cooked at home.

Being able to work legally is “an opportunity,” Lopez said. “I have an opportunity to find a job in what I want to study.”

‘Deferred action’ in WNC schools

Lopez, who was born in Matamoros, Mexico, has to pay out-of-state tuition, like all DACA students in North Carolina. DACA doesn’t let allow students to apply for financial aid, and DACA students can register for classes only after everyone else registers. Lopez had a few anxious days while waiting to see if she could get into some of her advanced math classes, she said.

DACA could benefit as many as 1.9 million people like her, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Though former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that immigration agents would not go after the parents of children applying for DACA status, fears remain that seeking it will bring unwanted attention to an applicant’s family.

North Carolina had an estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010 (up from about 25,000 in 1990), placing it ninth among states with the highest such populations, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Though there are communities throughout Western North Carolina with notable Hispanic populations (Henderson and Buncombe counties, principally), few students have applied to its public college or universities under the DACA status, administrators at both the four-year universities and area community colleges say.

To be eligible under DACA, students must meet a set of criteria. Students must be in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school or a GED. Students seeking to join the military are also eligible, or they must be an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or armed forces. They must have been 30 years or younger as of June 15, 2012. They must have come to the U.S. before their 16th birthday. They must have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, and were physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012, as well as when they were making their request for DACA status. They cannot be convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, three or more other misdemeanors or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Mayland Community College has three students who are eligible for DACA classification, but they had not applied as of the beginning of fall 2013 semester, Michelle Musich, the college’s dean of students, said in an email to Carolina Public Press.

Haywood Community College had its first DACA applicant in May 2013. Since then, it has had “about five students” apply under DACA classification, but, as of September, had only one student enrolled under deferred action status, said Jennifer Herrera, the college’s director of enrollment management.

Fourteen students are enrolled at Blue Ridge Community College under the DACA initiative, said Lee Anna Haney, the college’s communications director.

No one has applied under the act at Southwestern Community College, said Phil Weast, dean of student services. At A-B Tech, administrators said that there are at least 23 DACA students among the 48 enrolled as either DACA students or undocumented immigrants.

Isothermal Community College has no regular students with DACA classification, community relations director Michael Gavin said in an email. It has two high school students “flagged as potential deferred action students,” he said, but the college does not collect documentation from high school students until after graduation and only if they were continue as regular students.

Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University do not track students by DACA status, administrators said. A spokesman from UNC Asheville said the school cannot analyze whether any of its students would be covered under DACA.

DACA came out of Congress’ refusal to pass the DREAM Act, which would have provided conditional permanent residency to immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as children, had graduated from a U.S. high school and had lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years before the bill’s enactment. Proposed in 2001, the DREAM Act came up for a vote twice, in 2007 and 2010, failing in the Senate both times.

Editor’s note: Carolina Public Press’s journalism policies include prohibiting quoting or sourcing unnamed sources except in rare cases. This is one of those cases, when a subject of the story fears retribution and asks that her name be changed for her safety.

Correction: The original story omitted submitted information from UNC Asheville.

For more on DACA in North Carolina

 What DACA is and how to apply: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

How DACA applies to the North Carolina Community College System [PDF]

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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