Feds: Aliens can, too, attend N.C. colleges

The Bush administration's Department of Homeland Security has formally advised North Carolina that federal law doesn't prohibit admitting illegal immigrants to community colleges and public universities. That word – delivered in a letter last week from former Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, now a federal immigration enforcement official – means the Department of Community Colleges may ignore advice from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper's office earlier this year. That advice had prompted Community College System President Scott Ralls to reverse his predecessor's policy allowing campuses to enroll undocumented aliens.

Mr. Pendergraph's July 21 letter to the state – signed “Sheriff (Ret.) Jim Pendergraph” – noted that admission to public higher education institutions does not constitute a “benefit” banned by federal law unless it involved public funds or other monetary assistance. He noted that states are free to adopt their own policies or statutes, and that in the absence of a state policy, local campuses may make their own decisions.

However, he noted, campuses must use federal immigration standards “to identify illegal alien applicants,” though it's not clear for what purpose.

The letter to the state justice department responded to a May request for clarification about whether federal law prohibits illegal immigrants from attending community colleges. In December, Gov. Mike Easley told the Observer he believed nothing in federal law prohibited their enrolling at out-of-state rates, which more than cover the costs of providing instruction, though he believed in-state tuition violated the benefits clause. University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles took the same view; so did former Community Colleges President Martin Lancaster.

In light of Mr. Pendergraph's letter, President Ralls' decision earlier this year looks hasty and ill-advised. While he was following the advice of the attorney general's office, the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement told N.C. newspapers that nothing in federal law bans the admission of undocumented immigrants. President Ralls' decision to bend to questionable advice and exclude students who met state qualifications is troubling for an academic leader managing a complicated system. He will have to guard against succumbing to that kind of pressure in the future.

Following Mr. Pendergraph's letter, N.C. Justice Department General Counsel J.B. Kelly told the State Board of Community Colleges it has the authority to decide whether to admit undocumented aliens to community colleges. It should do so.

We believe the interpretations of Gov. Easley, Mr. Bowles, the Bush administration and Mr. Pendergraph are correct. It's better public policy, too. It's better to have educated, trained N.C. residents, regardless of immigration status, rather than untrained and uneducated residents who might burden state resources. The Bush administration has this one right.