State News

Supporters overwhelm opponents at hearing on illegal immigrants in colleges

Posted December 18, 2009 4:01 a.m. EST
Updated December 18, 2009 6:06 p.m. EST

— A packed public hearing Friday morning on a new policy to admit illegal immigrants at North Carolina community colleges spawned controversy, with policy opponents claiming the hearing was rigged in favor of supporters.

The board that governs North Carolina's 58 two-year colleges voted in September to allow illegal immigrants to enroll if they graduated from a U.S. high school and paid out-of-state rates of about $7,000 a year. Under the policy, lawful U.S. residents would have priority to crowded classrooms.

Friday's public hearing was part of the legal process the North Carolina Community College System must follow to change the admissions rules. The system's board will consider the comments in its vote next April on final approval of the rule change.

People were allowed to sign up to speak at the hearing at 9 a.m., but opponents said policy supporters were allowed to sign up early to stack the hearing in their favor.

"Illegal immigrant supporters have been given preferential treatment," said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. "Their side of the debate had some kind of insider knowledge that they'd be able to sign up at 8 (a.m.)"

Linda Weiner, a spokeswoman for the community college system, said people were waiting outside the State Archives Building in the cold Friday morning, so officials decided to let them inside early.

"Whenever the sign-up started, that first person would have been the same first person, whether it was at 8:30 or whether it was at 9 o'clock," Weiner said.

Fifty-one of 57 people who spoke at the public hearing were in favor of the new policy, saying everyone deserves equal access to education. They said it would be unfair to deprive students whose parents brought them to the U.S. of a college education.

"We can change this. We can open the door," retired teacher Judy Page said.

"We share the hope that education can make a difference in our lives, for our families," said Ron Bilbao, a member of the North Carolina Coalition for College Access, a group that wants to make higher education available to more people.

Gheen and other opponents said the students shouldn't even be in the country, and it doesn't make sense to provide them with an education when they can't legally get a job here.

"How is it fair to admit those who are undocumented to those who are documented?" Jack Alphin said.

Comments from supporters brought applause from the audience of about 200 people at the State Archives Building, while those from opponents were met by silence. Some supporters even said the policy change doesn't go far enough.

"(We need) in-state tuition and unrestricted access to all North Carolina residents," Justin Flores said. "I hope they do it soon."