Members of the North Carolina Community College board confront an emotion-packed issue as they meet today. They will discuss whether or not to admit illegal immigrants to the state's 58 campuses so long as they pay higher, non- resident tuition rates.
The right thing for North Carolina's future is to provide everyone who lives here access to as much education as desired. That might not be popular, and it will surely invoke chest-pounding from those opposed. The board must show leadership.Community College System President Scott Ralls barred illegal immigrants in May, after the state Attorney General's Office advised that their admission might violate federal law. However, a letter last month from former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, now a federal immigration official, ruled that the law does not prohibit admitting illegal immigrants. That means the State Board of Community Colleges can decide.
This issue boils down to a policy choice with very practical implications.
North Carolina has thousands of illegal immigrants because of the federal government's failure to secure the borders and failure to enact immigration reforms that are comprehensive and realistic.
It doesn't make sense to bar those undocumented residents – many of whom are young people brought here illegally by parents, through no choice of their own – from access to higher education
It does make sense for the state to allow them to get community college and university training. That would enable them to get better jobs, better income and pay more taxes.
Contrary to rhetoric, this would not cost state taxpayers a dime, nor would it take seats in classrooms from legal residents. Illegal immigrants now must pay tuition at out-of-state rates, which exceeds the cost of their schooling. Enrollment is open to all applicants.
Actions like those of U.S. Rep Sue Myrick only complicate the matter. She has threatened to file a bill to cut off federal funds to schools that admit undocumented immigrants.
That sort of punitive measure hurts all North Carolina students. It has no place in the debate.
Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, has said N.C. public universities will allow undocumented students unless federal law prohibits it, which it's now clear does not. That's a stand with backbone. It honors the state's best interests and traditions.
President Ralls aptly described the situation in a statement yesterday: “Not knowing if and how illegal immigration may be addressed by the federal government in the future, there is also the economic consideration of these current public school students one day potentially being legal caregivers, service providers and production workers in our state's economy, and the question of whether they are trained or not will be important.”
He's right. North Carolina's community colleges are critical links to training for those who live in the state. The board must honor access to education for all who live in the state.