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North Carolina Officials Struggle Over Educating Undocumented Immigrants


In a state where the commitment to higher education extends all the way back to the founding of the nation¡¯s first public university in 1789, North Carolina¡¯s community colleges just can¡¯t seem to get past the politics of illegal immigration.

North Carolina¡¯s Board of Community Colleges recently approved an independent study on the issues surrounding the admission of undocumented students into the North Carolina Community College System.

Four times since 2000, the nation¡¯s third-largest system of community colleges has changed its policy on students who are undocumented immigrants. Most recently, the system in May adopted the most restrictive policy in the country and barred undocumented immigrants from admission to its degree programs.

During an official hearing, System President Scott Ralls voiced his belief in the open door policy that has been the basis of student admissions for decades in North Carolina. Recognizing the complexity of current admission debate, Ralls said, ¡° ¡­ it is possible to craft policies to support our open door philosophy while also addressing many of the concerns expressed by North Carolinians regarding the admission of illegal immigrants.¡± He added that while future Federal or State action is unknown, ¡°enacting any policies regarding the issue of admission of illegal immigrants clearly lies within your authority.¡±

North Carolina¡¯s system of 58 community colleges serves roughly 800,000 students, or about one out of every 11 of the state¡¯s residents. Only Texas and California, states with populations more than twice the size, run larger systems.

Only a tiny fraction of the North Carolina students ¨D 112 at last count ¨D are undocumented immigrants. Former system president Martin Lancaster has staunchly defended the decision to admit such students, arguing they are unlikely to leave the state and therefore will be part of its work force.

¡°Do we want these workers to be ¡®knowledge workers¡¯ or ignorant workers incapable of giving to their employers their best efforts?¡± he wrote last year.

He noted that since those students pay out-of-state tuition, and don¡¯t qualify for federal financial aid, the students are actually moneymakers for the community colleges they attend.

In making his case, Lancaster was following a tradition of support for education that started with the founding of the University of North Carolina more than 200 years ago. It has only grown in the past two decades, as governors from Jim Hunt to Mike Easley hammered home its importance to support the state¡¯s booming population.

¡°Jim Hunt and Mike Easley have stood up and said ¡®No, this is not the standpoint of North Carolina,¡¯¡± said Eddie Davis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. ¡°But it¡¯s become a big political hot potato and people running for office now are afraid to say ¡®We owe it to these children to allow them to continue their education.¡¯¡±

Both of the major party candidates to replace Easley ¨D Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory ¨D support the board¡¯s current position.

McCrory has promised to rescind any ruling to allow undocumented immigrants to attend community college. Perdue has said federal law requires the state to give everyone access to K-12 education, but resources beyond that level should be spent on those who can legally work in North Carolina.

As the issue moved on the public stage last fall, the system asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to clarify federal law on whether post-secondary education should be considered a ¡°public benefit.¡± By federal law, ¡°aliens who are not qualified aliens or nonimmigrants are ineligible for state and local public benefits.¡±

While awaiting word from federal officials, Cooper advised new community college system president Scott Ralls, who replaced the retiring Lancaster in May, to bar undocumented immigrants from enrolling. Ralls followed that advice, locking in spaces only for those admitted on or before May 13.

During a formal hearing, System Office Counsel Shant¨¦ Martin told the board that the basis for the May memorandum to the colleges, which directed them to no longer admit undocumented students, ¡°no longer held water.¡± She told the members that there is no federal or state law that prevents colleges from admitting undocumented students.  

The Department of Homeland Security concluded that admission is not a public benefit. But they also added that ¡°states may bar or admit illegal aliens from enrolling in public postsecondary institutions either as a matter of policy or through legislation,¡± dumping the policy choice back before the State Board of Community Colleges.

The board got no clear guidance from lawmakers. While those on both sides of the issue filed legislation to address it during this year¡¯s session, leaders in the General Assembly steered clear of the controversy, aware of the debate it would cause in an election year.

For the board, there¡¯s no clear road to follow, as the politics, law and the economy all offer contradictory paths, said David Ayers, an assistant education professor at North Carolina State University.

¡°We¡¯ve created the conditions where immigrants are coming here to work,¡± Ayers said. ¡°We have a labor shortage and they¡¯re here to fill it. So what we¡¯re doing is saying, ¡®Yes, we want you here but you can¡¯t study in our colleges.¡±

The board has directed the system president and his staff to prepare a document outlining the scope of study. The board is expecting a survey and analysis of policies for admission of undocumented students institutions of higher education in other states, processes of verification to differentiate between U.S. citizens and undocumented students and a compendium of the history of the admission of undocumented students in the NCCCS.

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