N.C. Community College System Halts Undocumented Student Admissions

North Carolina’s community college system reversed itself Tuesday and said it will no longer admit undocumented immigrants until federal officials formally weigh in on whether it is legal.

The college system announced last year that all of its 58 campuses would enroll undocumented immigrants into degree programs who are at least 18 years old and who have graduated from high school. Previously, under a policy adopted in 2004, that decision was left to the individual campuses.

The change was supported by Gov. Mike Easley, but it provoked heavy criticism especially from the leading candidates running to replace the outgoing governor. That led the nation’s third-largest community college system to seek an opinion from the state attorney general’s office on whether the admissions policy was legal under federal law.

Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office recommended the community colleges drop the lenient admissions policy, and suggested that following stricter guidelines approved in 2001 under which undocumented immigrants were not eligible for a public post-secondary education was more likely to withstand judicial scrutiny.

Both Easley and the community college system asked Cooper’s office to seek formal guidance from federal authorities.

Although federal immigration officials last week released a statement saying there is no law prohibiting the state from educating undocumented immigrants at public colleges and universities, Cooper’s office said that statement is not the same as a legal opinion from the Department of Homeland Security.

“At the community college system’s request, we are seeking guidance from the Department of Homeland Security on this admissions policy as it relates to federal law,” said spokeswoman Noelle Talley.

While a number of states have debated whether undocumented immigrants should be entitled to the same tuition discounts as other in-state residents, the North Carolina debate appears to be different because it concerns whether undocumented students can attend public colleges at all, said Norma Kent, a vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges.

In Arizona, for instance, voters approved a ballot measure that prohibits undocumented immigrants from paying in-state tuition rates, a move that has driven many out of the public education system. A federal bill called “The DREAM Act” that would have given some undocumented immigrants legal status to serve in the armed forces or attend college stalled last year in Congress.

Only about 100 of the nearly 300,000 degree-seeking community college students are undocumented immigrants in North Carolina. They pay full, out-of-state tuition rates. Those enrolled in degree courses during the 2006-2007 school year may continue their studies, system president R. Scott Ralls said.

The system’s decision does not affect undocumented immigrants who are high school students taking community college classes, or adults in non-college level classes.

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