No Trespassing: Immobility for Undocumented Youth in the South

Twenty-five high school graduation ceremonies in 17 days. That was the schedule for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark when we spoke last June during our State of the South road trip. That’s a lot of caps and gowns, a lot of inspirational aphorisms, and a lot of valedictorians, salutatorians, and top academic performers to meet and recognize. Like Charlotte’s population growth, many of those high performing students are also Hispanic. And many are undocumented; they arrived in North Carolina as young children and, as Clark noted, represent the success of CMS pre-K and ESL programs. Indeed, the graduation of these students reflects a national trend: the recent decrease in the high school dropout rate has been driven by Hispanic students. Nine times as many finish as drop out, even as the proportion of students who are Hispanic has risen. (Note: the dropout rate for this group of students is still higher than that of other racial or ethnic groups, but it’s also dropping faster.) But for undocumented students, progress becomes much more difficult after high school, even with a stellar academic record.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) details the challenges facing these students and some options for building the necessary infrastructure of opportunity to help them reach their potential. CAP estimates that approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools each year; these successes are related to Federal policy that secures K-12 education access regardless of immigration status, but these policies do not extend to higher education. This leads to legal, social, and economic challenges for young people who aspire to continue their education; they face barriers to identifying education options, enrolling, and paying tuition.

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So Much More than Reinvestment in Charlotte

So Much More than Reinvestment in Charlotte

On the Charlotte, N.C., leg of our 2014 State of the South road trip, we met with local leaders from the nonprofit, business, and education sectors. One of those was Ron Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU). Johnson C. Smith, an HBCU founded in 1867, is located in Charlotte’s Northwest corridor, a collection of historic neighborhoods outside of the city center that are being revitalized. President Carter is leading reinvestment efforts in this part of the city, making investments in physical infrastructure and building relationships with new communities within the corridor. These efforts highlight the link between place and opportunity, because, as President Carter sees it, “If we don’t have corridor development, we won’t get to city development or state development.”

Since his arrival in 2008, Carter has been working with community members and public/private developers to construct and restore buildings, attract community wellness assets, and advocate for east-west transportation connections to the rest of the city. Charlotte’s Northwest corridor is a major transportation route from uptown Charlotte and gateway to 37 neighborhoods in the historic West End. The Northwest Corridor Revitalization Initiative began with the Soul of the Northwest Corridor survey (launched in 2010) to solicit residents’ opinions about their community and local economic growth. Follow-up studies informed other community engagement efforts, like the Indaba held on the JCSU campus. (Indaba is a community forum common in African tribes.) At these gatherings, participants review annual community action items and plan community enhancements. (The 2013 Indaba focused on increasing the effectiveness, influence, and representation of political leadership of the Northwest Corridor). Some of the enhancements already in place include a visual and performing arts teaching facility and theater (in a renovated tire company building); a mixed-use development with student housing, public parking, retail, and commercial space; community gardens; a health and wellness facility, and public art installations. The initiative is strengthening economic and social connections for young people and their families.

A bus stop in the Northwest Corridor captures the vibrancy of the neighborhood, its history, and the revitalization going on there. Photo courtesy Johnson C. Smith University.

Johnson C. Smith also is working to build connections in communities outside the typical realm of an HBCU. In 2011 they became part of the Latin American Coalition’s College Access Para Todos program. JCSU began actively recruiting qualified Latino students from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System and admitted 81Latino students for the 2011-2012 school year. (The university also sponsored English as a Second Language classes for parents and grandparents.) In 2014, a group of JCSU students established a Latino fraternity—one of the first on an HBCU campus. Many of these students grew up in Charlotte and are undocumented, meaning they are ineligible for in-state tuition and federal financial aid, even when they are accepted into the state’s public university or community college system. Enrollment and financial support at JCSU allow them to continue their education and contribute to the community and economy in new ways. Writing about the program in a 2012 Charlotte Viewpoint, President Carter said, “But it is not just the students whose lives have been enriched by their presence on campus. With their differing legacies, history, and culture, they bring to the Smith campus a diversity that gives gravitas to the university’s vision of excellence in global education.”

These efforts to direct resources to areas of highest need—recapturing productivity and reaching across communities—are a great example of the physical and social relationships that are required to support an infrastructure of opportunity for young people in the South.

Ed. Note: This post originally appeared on MDC’s blog, The North Star.