RALEIGH, N.C. _ North Carolina’s community college system voted Friday to admit undocumented immigrants at its campuses next year, a move unlikely to bring an immediate surge in undocumented students given a requirement that they pay higher tuition.
The State Board of Community Colleges approved the rules, which according to proponents will provide clarity after four previous policy changes on the topic since 2001.
A no-admission policy, with some rare exceptions, has been in place since May 2008, but Friday’s vote will open more opportunities for Latino residents to succeed, an advocate said.
“We are thrilled with the decision,” said Marco Zarate, president of the North Carolina Society of Hispanic Professionals. “We believe that education is something that is probably one of the few things that once you have it, nobody can take it away from you.”
The changes are designed to focus on children who entered the country illegally with their parents and didn’t make the decision to come to America, said Stuart Fountain, chairman of the policy committee that recommended the policy change to the full board.
“These children cannot be held in limbo while the federal government decides what to do with immigration,” Fountain said. “While in high school they have adopted American culture and they’ve learned to speak English.”
Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton cast the only “no” vote against the policy in the voice vote but did not debate the issue before the board. He released a statement saying that “these are extremely difficult economic times that require tough choices.”
“Now is not the time to increase the demands on our already overburdened community college system,” Dalton added.
The rules, which would almost mirror guidelines for University of North Carolina campuses, would allow undocumented immigrants to enroll in any of the system’s 58 campuses if they have graduated from a U.S. high school.
But they also would have to pay the out-of-state tuition rate of $7,700 per year with full course loads, or nearly five times the in-state rate, according to system data. They also couldn’t qualify for financial aid or supplant students who are legally in the U.S. on crowded campuses.
The policy “is still going to be very restrictive for an awful lot of these students,” said Tony Asion, executive director of the Hispanic advocacy group El Pueblo, who wants in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. “But at this point it’s better than nothing.”
With some campus presidents seeing 20 to 30 percent enrollment increases this year as unemployed workers try to retrain for a new career, undocumented immigrants would get lower priority for admission.
“My personal belief is that we’ll end up averaging no more than one or two students per college,” Fountain said.
The system had 111 undocumented immigrants enrolled during the 2007-08 school year, according to an outside consultant’s report presented in April to the board while it formulated a policy. In 2007, the system replaced a policy giving campuses the option to enroll undocumented immigrants with a requirement that they do so.
About 50 opponents to the change picketed outside the state’s community college offices Thursday while a committee discussed the policy. There were no protesters Friday.
“For our state to be assisting people illegally here to be better trained so that they can possibly take jobs or will take jobs from North Carolinians just seems to be a wrong-headed type of policy,” said Ron Woodard, director of NC LISTEN, a Cary-based group that lobbies for less immigration.
Gov. Beverly Perdue, another Democrat, believes the board made the wrong decision Friday, spokeswoman Chrissy Pearson said. Perdue told reporters this week it’s hard to understand why the state should educate people “when they can’t work legally in the state after they’re educated.”
Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, criticized the decision and suggested Perdue could have lobbied more to block the change.
“This action is a slap in the face to legal North Carolina residents that desperately need access to the job training provided by our community colleges during the worst period of unemployment since the Great Depression,” Berger said.
A governor has no direct authority over the board but appoints 10 of the 21 members. Perdue has appointed four of them since taking office in January.
The ruling also got the attention of U.S. Rep Sue Myrick, R-N.C., an immigration policy critic who released a one-sentence statement: “Someone needs to look up the meaning of the word ‘illegal.”’
The vast majority of states admit undocumented immigrants, Fountain said. Of 11 states reviewed in the consultant’s report, five offered an in-state tuition rate to undocumented immigrants, five required the out-of-state rate and South Carolina had a ban on admissions for undocumented immigrants.
The new policy “keeps us in the mainstream of educational thought in the United States,” Fountain said.
The policy still must go through a procedure required of most rules approved by state agencies. The Legislature could still reject the rule when it reconvenes in May or override it with its own law.