Community Colleges in North Carolina Close Doors to Illegal Immigrants
North Carolina's State Board of Community Colleges voted on Friday to bar illegal immigrants from enrolling in the state's 58 community colleges while it commissions a study on the politically charged issue. The decision surprised and angered some Hispanic-rights advocates and disregarded the board president's recommendation that a more lenient policy be restored.
The vote ratified a motion by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a former schoolteacher and current Democratic candidate for governor, who sits on the community-colleges board. She drew sharp fire from critics of the decision.
"I was shocked that a person who is running for office stating that she will be the education governor would propose denying education to these kids," said Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo Inc., a public-policy group, based in Raleigh, N.C., that advocates for Latinos. "And I was shocked that they are going forward with this policy even though there is no federal or state law prohibiting the colleges from admitting these students."
North Carolina is one of only a few states that deny illegal immigrants access to community colleges.
In recent years, the state's community-college leaders have been yanked back and forth by government officials who told them they could, or could not, accept illegal immigrants. In May the state attorney general's office advised the community-college system to stop admitting undocumented students who were otherwise qualified. He said the open-door policy that the college system's lawyers had recommended last year could violate federal law.
The following day, Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, stepped in and urged the colleges to hold off on changing their policies until the federal government offered some guidance. Nonetheless, the community-colleges system sent out an advisory in late May telling the college presidents to heed the attorney general's advice and ban illegal immigrants. Some did, while others decided to wait for the federal government to weigh in.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded that federal law does not prevent public colleges from accepting undocumented students and punted the issue back to the state.
As a result of the conflicting messages, some of the state's community colleges have banned illegal immigrants, while others have not. When those students are accepted, they still must pay high out-of-state tuition rates, a cost that has severely restricted the number of such students attending the colleges.
The community-colleges board also voted on Friday to authorize a study of how other states handle the issue of undocumented students and to use that information to develop its own policy.
A day earlier, R. Scott Ralls, president of the community-colleges system, spoke in favor of easing the restriction. "While many of these students may not have arrived in the United States legally, many of them came as minors, and for what it is worth, I have difficulty with the notion of punishing minors for the actions of their parents," he said.
"Given the cost of out-of-state tuition, the numbers of undocumented students admitted to our programs have been very small—less than one-half of 1 percent of enrollment in our degree programs," Mr. Ralls added.
The system reports that only 112 illegal immigrants are among the approximately 800,000 students enrolled statewide.
Gary M. Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College, said he appreciated guidance on what has been "a difficult and moving target." The state's practices on undocumented students have changed at least four times since 2000.
"I think this is a reasoned approach, for the state board to take time to consider a very important public-policy issue," he said on Friday. Forsyth stopped accepting undocumented students in May, when the attorney general advised colleges to do so. Only four of the college's 7,500 current students are undocumented, he said. They pay out-of-state tuition of $233 per credit hour, compared with the in-state rate of $42.
Some board members and community-college presidents believe that rather than ban undocumented students outright, the colleges should follow the lead of the University of North Carolina system, which allows them to enroll as long as they have graduated from a high school in the United States, pay out-of-state tuition rates, and do not receive federal financial aid.
"I do not understand why they're hammering this ant with a sledgehammer," said Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston, who is a national expert on immigration law and policy. "These are not kids who have crossed the border as terrorists."
Mr. Olivas said that all but 10 states required undocumented students to pay out-of-state rates, but that with Friday's vote, only North Carolina and South Carolina ban them outright from community colleges.
The issue has become a hot potato in a state with one of the nation's fastest-growing Hispanic populations and a growing number of undocumented students. U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican of North Carolina, announced on Wednesday that in September she would introduce a bill to yank federal funds from colleges that knowingly have admitted illegal immigrants. The bill would restrict direct appropriations and grants, but not financial aid.
"Our higher-education system is set up so that our country's resources go to those who are here legally, not those who are breaking our laws," said Ms. Myrick, a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., during a news conference.
Andrea Bazán, chairwoman of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, called the vote to ban illegal immigrants "shortsighted."
Denying students access to a college education could lead to higher rates of dropouts, teen pregnancy, and gang participation, said Ms. Bazán. "They may feel that there's no point in working hard in school because they won't be able to go to college anyway."
Mr. Asion, of the group El Pueblo, said studies had shown that the state would need tens of thousands more workers in nursing, among other professions, to meet the needs of an aging population. Instead of importing workers, he said, the state could educate undocumented students who had grown up there and provide waivers to allow them to fill jobs in fields with worker shortages.
"We have kids willing to pay to go to school without getting a dime from the state, and we need them," he said. "So why is it again that we don't want them educated?"
"These kids are sitting on the sidelines, waiting," Mr. Asion continued. "One minute they're hearing you can go to college, then you can't, then yes, you can. We're messing with their lives."