The state's community colleges will keep their doors closed to illegal immigrants, a decision steeped in a divisive election-year debate.
The State Board of Community Colleges voted Friday to back a motion by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic candidate for governor, to keep its ban on admitting illegal immigrants in place while a study is conducted on how other states deal with the issue.
Perdue wants a permanent ban and pushed to keep illegal immigrants from enrolling while “the long-term policy is being examined.” Of the more than 300,000 students enrolled in community colleges in 2006-2007, 112 were illegal immigrants.
The vote, with 11 of the 16 board members participating favoring keeping the ban, appeared to reverse the direction that the board was heading a day before.
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During a Thursday meeting, most board members appeared to be interested in lifting the ban imposed in May on illegal immigrants in degree programs. The state attorney general's office had advised the system that admitting illegal immigrants might violate federal law. But a recent letter from the federal government said it is up to each state to decide whether illegal immigrants can attend colleges.
A lawyer for the community college system said Thursday that the basis for the attorney general's memo to the colleges directing them not to admit undocumented students “no longer held water.” Stuart Fountain, a board member from Asheboro, told the board this week that temporarily allowing legal immigrants “is the legal position we have to take.”
But that was not the direction board members, who said they had been under pressure from both sides, took when they voted on Friday.
“I've never encountered such a divisive issue as this one,” Fountain said Friday.
Illegal immigration has become a contentious political issue in North Carolina. The state Senate's Republican leader, Phil Berger of Eden, asked the community college board to keep the ban in place and U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, plans to introduce a bill to withhold federal funding from colleges and universities that knowingly admit illegal immigrants.
Myrick applauded the board's decision Friday, saying in a statement that “common sense and rule of law have prevailed.”
N.C. Policy Watch, a Raleigh-based public policy group, denounced the decision on its blog: “Score another victory of the know-nothings and nativists.”
Illegal immigration – and Perdue's position on community college enrollment – has already been an issue in the governor's race.
Pat McCrory, Perdue's Republican opponent, tried in May to connect Perdue to a position she did not hold, saying that she supported allowing illegal immigrants to attend community college.
Perdue participated in Friday's board meeting by telephone long enough to make the motion barring illegal immigrants.
She could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
But board members who voted to keep the ban said they didn't do it for political reasons. The community college system has changed its policy four times since 2001, and board members said keeping the ban will maintain some stability.
“We just don't want to flip-flop again,” said Linwood Powell of Fayetteville, the board's vice chairman.
Tom Houlihan, board member from Oxford, said many members weren't sure what to do. But he said political considerations were “never a factor.”
“It was really trying to figure out, trying to solve this problem once and for all,” he said.
Houlihan said a July 31 letter from the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte that asked system President Scott Ralls to reinstate policies to admit all students regardless of immigration status swayed him and other board members to support keeping the ban.
In her letter, coalition chief executive officer Angeles Ortega-Moore said a decision Friday would come too late for students to enroll in fall classes.
Since it was already too late for this semester, Houlihan said, the board has time to seek help in developing a permanent policy.
Jess George, the coalition's associate director, said she was dismayed that board members used Ortega-Moore's letter as justification to continue to deny people an education.
“It stinks,” she said. “Immigration is such a polarizing and divisive issue for people. We have allowed this issue to overtake the fundamental belief in education for everybody.”