Tuesday, December 21, 2010

News and Observer article by Kristin Collins


June 21, 2009
Author: Kristin Collins, Staff Writer

CARRBORO Ronald Bilbao will remember his 21st birthday not for gifts that he received, but for one that he gave.This year on his birthday, Bilbao, a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, sponsored his parents for legal residency in the United States - 25 years after they left their native Venezuela for Miami.
His parents had been among this nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, with no way to rectify their immigration status, since 1984. But several years ago, they discovered that they were among a small group of illegal immigrants who have a path to citizenship.
In the nation's complex web of immigration laws, there is a provision that allows people who entered the country on legal visas and remained after the visas expired to apply for permanent residency - but only if they have an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years old. Ronald, a U.S. citizen born in Florida, was their ticket.
He signed the forms on his birthday, Jan. 8, and in March, Bilbao's parents received green cards that allow them to live permanently in the United States. It was a joyful occasion for his family. It was also a lesson in the arbitrary nature of U.S. immigration laws, which forgive some illegal immigrants and provide no remedies for others, Bilbao said.
Because he was born in Florida, the U.S. immigration system gave Ronald Bilbao all the rights of a U.S. citizen and allowed him to get a full scholarship to UNC-CH. It left his family, including his brother, who came to this country when he was a baby, on the margins of society for more than two decades before excusing their violations.
"I didn't do anything differently," Bilbao says. "I'm just lucky. And I had to wait 21 years so I could finally do something to help my family."


The law that helped Bilbao's family works for only a small number of immigrants. It applies only to people who entered the country on legal visas, an estimated 45 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants. It excludes those who crossed the border without a visa or committed any legal infraction, such as using false documents to get a job. Arcane provisions of the law bar still more people, on the basis of criteria such as the year they entered the country.
It will not help the majority of North Carolina's illegal immigrants from Mexico, many of whom sneaked across the border by swimming across the Rio Grande River or hiking through the desert.
Cases such as Bilbao's give fuel to both sides of the nation's contentious immigration debate. Some anti-illegal immigration activists point to them as a reason to cut back on family-based immigration, and to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. They say that violating the law shouldn't be rewarded with the chance to gain legal status.
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which pushes for stricter immigration enforcement, said the case shows the need for tighter laws that punish people who over-stay visas just as they punish border jumpers. "We need to deal with the illegal immigrants who are here the same way, regardless of how they got here," he said.
Immigrant advocates agree that cases such as Bilbao's point to a fundamental unfairness in the law. They argue that the nation needs immigration reform that would give all illegal immigrants equal opportunity to earn legal status. Jack Pinnix, a Raleigh immigration lawyer, called current law "an irrational patchwork of happenstances that divides families."


Bilbao's parents, Lucia Romero and Henry Bilbao, moved to Florida in 1984 with their infant son, Robert. All had visas that allowed them to come legally, but the documents eventually expired.
Lucia Romero said they had a good life in Venezuela; her husband had a business importing auto parts, and she worked as a secretary. But her husband traveled frequently to the United States for business, and he became passionate about raising his children in what he saw as the land of opportunity.
"We moved for better education for our children," she said.
Growing up in the multicultural mix of Miami, Ronald and Robert say, they didn't understand the concept of being illegal immigrants. They occasionally heard their parents talk about not "having papers," but they didn't know what that meant.
Lucia Romero said they went to legions of lawyers, trying to find a way to gain legal status, always hitting dead ends. Even a 1986 amnesty that legalized millions of immigrants didn't help.
 But their status had little effect on their day-to-day lives. Her husband continued to run his auto-parts business, and she found work as a housekeeper. Immigration laws went all but unenforced for years, so they never feared deportation.
It wasn't until 2001, when their elder son Robert began applying to colleges, that their immigration status began to have serious consequences. Robert, who graduated among the top five in his high school and dreamed of becoming a doctor, was accepted by Cornell University and by UNC-Chapel Hill. But his immigration status disqualified him for student aid or loans. He was forced to turn down the slots and, for a while, give up his hopes of a college education. "I've come to identify myself as a man without a country," says Robert, who still lives in Miami. "I'm not American enough for America, and I'm not Venezuelan enough for Venezuela."
Robert eventually found a way to attend the University of Florida and earned legal residency by marrying his girlfriend. He is now a teacher and hopes soon to begin medical school.
But he and Ronald watched things become increasingly difficult for their parents as immigration laws tightened in recent years.
They were unable to renew their driver's licenses, and the fear of deportation, once unimaginable, crept in.


Ronald said he didn't fully understand his family's situation until he entered college in 2006. He knew the specifics - his brother couldn't get financial aid and his parents couldn't get passports or driver's licenses - but he didn't know that their problems fit into a broader national problem.
He had no idea that there were tens of thousands of students like his brother, unable to go to college because of their immigration status. "I thought it was just bad luck on our part," he says.
He figured it out only when he began studying immigration issues, and talking with other students who were engaged in the debate over national policy.
Now, he is the leader of a group he founded at UNC-CH, the Coalition for College Access, which advocates allowing illegal immigrants to attend the state's universities and colleges.
His family made it to the other side of this country's immigration morass. But he said he cannot celebrate their success without also feeling guilty - that he is attending a college his brother couldn't, that he was able to help his family in a way that most children of North Carolina's illegal immigrants cannot.
And guilty that, when he went home for spring break, his father felt the need to thank him for the gift of legal residency.

Staff writer Jennifer Klahre contributed to this report.

kristin.collins@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4881

Monday, December 13, 2010

NPR segment on the Carolina Covenant

My first interview at UNC. For the NPR program The State of Things with Jessica Jones on the Carolina Covenant.

Scroll down and click on Listen Now to hear the full interview.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Carolina Firsts" video

A video for the launch of the Carolina First Generation Students and Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill

And an article to explain:

Initiatives Recognize First-Generation College Students

Initiatives Mark Success of First-Generation College Students

Ron Bilbao was born and raised in Miami to immigrant parents from Venezuela and Colombia. Now a senior at Carolina, he is the first person in his family to head down the path to college graduation.
"My father had to actually drop out of college when he was younger to go to work, but [my parents] knew the value of an education and wanted to pass that on to their kids," Bilbao said.

Continue reading here: http://alumni.unc.edu/article.aspx?sid=7455

"Celebrate Carolina's Diversity" video for the Carolina Annual Fund

Launch of the new Carolina Latina/o Collaborative website!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Carolina Alumni Review Article



College Stories

Becoming Latino: From Miami to Carolina Del Norte
by Ron Bilbao

It was the first thing my mother mentioned when she dropped me off on Franklin Street three and a half years ago and the first question my best friend asked when he came up to visit one year later:

"Where are all the Hispanics?"

Naturally all that asked were indeed Hispanic themselves and from Miami no less, the Latin American capital of the United States. We're known for a few things in Miami: the beach and Will Smith. We're also known as one of the only cities in the U.S. where Hispanics are the predominate ethnicity and rank first in the world in terms of cities with percentage populations born outside of their own country (59% according to the United Nations Development Program, 2004).

For an eighteen year old born and raised in Miami by Venezuelan and Colombian immigrant parents that spoke no English and never went to college, going to a high school with a Hispanic population of over 90%, in a city where it is common to be asked "Can I help you?" in Spanish first and then in English, going out of state for college was no big deal. My first-year roommate from the rural one-stoplight town of Beulaville, NC (1,200 residents) and I had more in common than we thought when we first arrived in Chapel Hill, NC: we were both in a state of culture shock.

For him, he had never seen so many people from so many different places with so many different stories. For me, I had never seen so many white southerners from so many rural areas with so many generations lived in the U.S. For him, UNC was the Flagship University of the State, the school his father went to and the one all his friends aspired to. For me, it was a reputable public school with unmatched financial assistance that was far away from home. He loved it for its tradition. I loved it for its value.

While I was only one of two hundred eighty one male Hispanic students at UNC in 2006, I was part of a larger trend happening both nationally and locally. The U.S. is seeing an unprecedented rise in the Hispanic population and much of it is happening right here in North Carolina - the state with the fastest growing Latino population (Pew Hispanic Center). UNC Chapel Hill has similar growth more than tripling its Hispanic student enrollment over the last eight years and projecting a four hundred percent increase over the next ten years (College of Arts and Science Growth Study, 2007).

So where were all the Hispanics then? Eventually I found them - in Lenoir. The dining hall staff was overwhelmingly Hispanic and most spoke little to no English. I found them in housing - cleaning the bathrooms and mopping the hallways. I found them on Franklin Street - in the backs of restaurants cooking or washing dishes. I found them on street corners in Carrboro - at 7am hoping to be picked up for work. The truth was Hispanics were everywhere. It's just that they were nowhere to be seen.

Why were there so few Hispanics in my classes, teaching classes, holding Administrative positions, managing others? I often found myself the sole Hispanic voice on University committees, student groups, and focus groups. I admit that at times I felt I was purposefully placed on certain committees to be that voice, to represent my people so to speak. I remember being asked in a committee meeting once how other minority students would feel about a particular proposal. For the first time in my life, I realized, I was actually a minority.

I had never felt underrepresented until I came to North Carolina. I met people who were in an unfamiliar place, frightened, and who had no right to speak up for themselves. These were neither the strong-character Cubans I knew from back home nor the fiercely passionate Puerto Ricans that I had grown up with. They were the rest of us, the Hispanics that were underrepresented, the invisible Latinos.

Recognizing the opportunities I had at a place like UNC, I took action. I helped found the North Carolina Coalition for College Access - a state-wide, grassroots, student-led movement dedicated to ensuring access to higher education for all students regardless of immigration status. I urged the Chancellor in 2007 to consider the creation Latino Center to represent our community on campus and in the state and  in April 2010, the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative will be formally inducted at Craig North Residence Hall on south campus at UNC. I've mentored a Latino high school student from Siler City for the past three years and have tutored university workers in the English language. To me this was the very least I could do at a place that gave me the power to stand up and do it. I became the voice of a population like I had never imagined.
Growing up in Miami showed me that the world is a comfortable place when people have so much in common. Coming to UNC showed me that it's a much more realistic world when you have to figure out what it actually is you have in common. My goal has been to show the people of this state that we are not so different and that our values are closely aligned: family, religion, prosperity for our country.

In Miami I was Hispanic - a term coined by the U.S. Census in 1970. When I moved to North Carolina I became Latino - a similar meaning yet self-imposed by our community as a form of empowerment. I have been and always will be an American - whatever that means to you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

UNC Home Page

On the UNC home page today. [Archived here]

Thursday, April 22, 2010