State News

Easley: Community colleges should admit illegal immigrants

Posted May 8, 2008 4:05 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2008 3:11 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Mike Easley said Thursday the state's community colleges should stick to a policy of admitting all eligible illegal immigrants.

Easley's suggestion came one day after the state Attorney General's Office called on colleges to drop the lenient admissions policy.

J.B. Kelly, general counsel for the Attorney General's Office, said the community college system should follow federal law more closely and admit immigrants in narrow circumstances. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security hadn't signed off on more lenient admission standards, he said, so following federal rules "would more likely withstand judicial scrutiny," he wrote in a letter to officials of the 58-campus community college system.

Last November, the community colleges' attorney decided that the schools must admit illegal immigrants as long as they were 18 years old and high school graduates. That ruling updated a 2004 rule that left the decision up to individual campuses.

Easley said Thursday that federal law doesn't clearly outline when illegal immigrants can attend community college. He asked Attorney General Roy Cooper to seek clarification from Washington.

"The legislature specifically provided the Community College (System) board the authority to establish admission criteria. In the absence of federal action to the contrary, the Community College board should continue its current policy, which is consistent with other states," Easley said in a statement.

Cooper's office said this week it could send a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on the system's behalf.

Kelly's letter has gained political traction among lawmakers who want the state to take a tougher stance against illegal immigrants.

"You should not be providing that sort of benefit to people who are admittedly illegally in this country," House Minority Leader Phil Berger said.

The Rockingham County Republican and other lawmakers said they would push for legislation barring admission to community colleges to illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, Latino advocates were angry about the prospect of banning illegal immigrants from state colleges.

"It makes no sense whatsoever. You're going to have less people to fill needed jobs. Plus, those who are educated are less likely to be involved in crime," said Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit advocacy group for Hispanics.

Of the nearly 300,000 curriculum students in community colleges statewide, 112 are illegal immigrants, according to the latest state figures. Twenty-seven of the 200,000 students in the University of North Carolina system are illegal immigrants.

All of the illegal immigrants pay out-of-state tuition at both UNC and community college campuses.

Community college leaders, who were expected to release their decision Friday on how to proceed, said they need more time to formulate a response. Educators said that, whatever happens, they feel current students should be allowed to complete their education.

Wake Technical Community College President Stephen Scott said he supports educating all students – five of Wake Tech's 18,000 students are known to be illegal immigrants – but said he wants more than anything else consistent rules to follow.

"We would just like a consistent set of rules. Whatever they are, we'll abide by them," Scott said. "Wake Tech is in the business of educating people. I believe we ought to educate the people who want to attend Wake Tech."

North Carolina's community college system is the third largest in the country. About 800,000 students attend the system's 58 schools.