RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Board of Community Colleges voted Friday to allow illegal immigrants to enroll at the two-year colleges. The board's committee voted the same way Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton was the only board member to vote no on Friday.
"These are extremely difficult economic times that require tough choices," Dalton said. "People are losing their jobs. Unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. These are the times when North Carolinians are turning to their community colleges for workforce retraining. Yet, in order to balance the budget, we have already had to raise tuition, cut programs, and reduce access. Now is not the time to increase the demands on our already overburdened community college system."
Under the new policy, students who aren't in the country legally but who graduated from a U.S. high school would have to pay out-of-state rates of about $7,000 a year. Also, lawful U.S. residents would have priority to crowded classrooms.
"It is a policy that is the right thing to do because it maintains that all-important hope for students who were brought to our country as minors and who are graduates of our high schools," Scott Ralls, president of the Community College System, said in a statement. "It keeps the path to a better life clearly in view.”
System officials said the existing ban on illegal immigrants would remain in place for six to 12 months until the administrative rules to carry out the new policy can be put in place.
The country's third-largest community college system has changed its illegal immigrant admission policy four times since 2000. The latest look came as laid-off workers fill classrooms.
"Once the administrative rules process is completed, our community colleges will be able to cease the back-and-forth of the last eight years, and these students, who are striving for a better future, will have access to a seamless educational pathway from K-12 and beyond,” Hilda Pinnix-Ragland, chairwoman of the Board of Community Colleges, said in a statement.
Latino advocacy groups hailed the proposal, saying it would continue North Carolina's tradition of higher education support for state residents. Many groups protested the move, however, saying the state shouldn't provide benefits to illegal immigrants.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said in an interview this week with WRAL News that she doesn't believe people who are in the U.S. illegally should be in community college classrooms.
"In all honesty and with due respect to the Board of Community Colleges, it's hard for me to understand why we would give an education to those who can't work legally in the country," Perdue said. "Either way, it's a hard choice. Kids need an education, but if they can't work, why do it?"