Meet the undocumented immigrant who hopes to be UNC’s next student body president


UNC student Emilio Vicente, addressing marchers during an event on Saturday, Feb. 8, in Raleigh. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Chuck Liddy)

Students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill are voting again today to pick a new student body president, a week after the original election’s results meant that a runoff would be necessary.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t generate widespread media attention. But this particular campaign has been covered in national newspapers and on cable news networks.

The reason? One of the two candidates, Emilio Vicente, is an undocumented immigrant who is open about this fact while campaigning to lead the student body of the country’s oldest state university.

“I’m undocumented, I’m gay and I’m Latino,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera America.

Vicente said he was smuggled out of Guatemala when he was six. His parents returned to Guatemala after his father was injured in an accident, but he remained and he said he hasn’t seen them since 2007.

He wouldn’t be the first undocumented immigrant elected president of a college or university student body, according to Cristina Jimenez, managing director of advocacy group United We Dream.

“He is definitely the first one to be openly gay and undocumented,” she said Tuesday. “And he’s the first one to run such a public campaign that’s very open about his identity and his immigration status.”

Vicente worked with United We Dream in 2010 to push for the Dream Act, Jimenez said. Now he’s “becoming a public example” of how young, undocumented immigrants will take on leadership roles in the community, she said.

“He’s becoming a role model for other young people around the country who are undocumented and who connect with his story and his experience,” she said.

Vicente told Frank Bruni of the New York Times that, if he won, his victory could be a chance “to change the narrative of what it means to be undocumented.”

His life story, and the fact that the election is taking place at such a high-profile university, has been highlighted by media outlets including the TimesAl Jazeera America, FusionGawker and, now, The Post.

Of course, this publicity does have its downside. Vicente has had to defend himself against accusations that he’s focused on media attention. He said recently that his campaign isn’t about immigration, but rather is about what he can do for the campus. (You can find his entire platform here, if you’re so inclined.)

While his entire family is undocumented, except for his younger sister, his family is still “a little bit conservative,” he told Fusion. As a result, he said “it was harder to come out as gay as opposed to undocumented.

Vicente said he was shocked when he first learned he had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend UNC, despite living in Siler City, N.C., just 35 minutes southwest of the school’s campus. While there are at least 16 states with laws allowing undocumented students to pay the same tuition as their classmates to attend public schools, North Carolina isn’t on that list, according to the National Immigration Law Center. (Vicente is able to attend the school through a scholarship.)

The runoff election ends at 8 p.m.


Students make their way through snow on the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill campus last week. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

 

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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