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N.C. Community Colleges President Defends Undocumented Immigrant Policy

RALEIGH, N.C. — The president of the state community college system won’t back down from a new policy that allows Undocumented Immigrants to enroll on all campuses, saying that doing otherwise runs counter to a nearly 50-year-old tradition of open admissions.

Martin Lancaster, who will soon retire from his post, defended the change in a 1,200-word statement sent to reporters Tuesday. He said children of people who entered the country illegally shouldn’t be punished after attending public schools by being denied the opportunity to better their lives through education.

“They were brought here by their parents, often as babes in arms,” Lancaster wrote. “How can these children be considered lawbreakers intent on taking advantage of our community college programs illegally?”

The new rule overrides a 2004 policy that gave the state’s 58 community colleges discretion whether to admit undocumented immigrants, and nearly two-thirds of the campuses chose to do so. About 340 students who fall into the category are currently enrolled.

The change is opposed by the five leading major-party candidates for governor.

One of the candidates, Republican state Sen. Fred Smith, asked the state Attorney General’s Office to review the policy, saying it contradicts federal and state laws, and any such change needs to be approved by the state Legislature.

Lancaster said he asked a community college attorney to review the previous policy after questions were raised about it, including some from Duke University students researching the matter.

The lawyer determined the change was necessary based on a 1997 letter, which was sent to a community college by two state prosecutors, that said colleges couldn’t set nonacademic requirements on prospective students. The decision was released last week.

“There could be no basis in either policy or law to deny anyone access under our open-door policy,” Lancaster said, adding that community colleges have been open to all since the 1958 founding of the first Industrial Education Center, the community college system’s predecessor.

Despite support by its administrators, the system also asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to review the policy.

On Tuesday, Cooper said lawyers in his office would look at state and federal laws, and at the letter that formed the basis for the policy.

“Our attorneys will research the law and hopefully will be back pretty soon,” Cooper said, declining to discuss his personal views on the policy. “I don’t know how long it will take, but we’ll take whatever time it needs to determine the current status of the law.”

Conservative groups and others who say they want immigration laws enforced, specifically those that bar undocumented immigrants from working in the country, have been strongly critical of the policy. Lancaster said that viewpoint “ignores the fact that thousands of them are working today in almost every field one can imagine.”

Democratic Gov. Mike Easley supports the policy. He said North Carolina is doing the best it can to respond to the failures of Congress and President Bush to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law.

“I don’t want any Undocumented Immigrants or otherwise in North Carolina,” Easley said Tuesday. “The only way we can stop that is for Washington to control the borders.”

The state community college board meets Thursday to decide on a successor to Lancaster, who announced his retirement last winter.

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