Sorting Fact from Fiction
An abridged version of this op-ed ran in the Greensboro News & Record
According to Civitas’ most recent DecisionMaker Poll, 68 percent of N.C. voters agree that illegal aliens shouldn’t be allowed to enroll in public universities and community colleges. But if voters seem to know what they want in this case, the General Assembly hasn’t yet decided. Two bills – one that would confirm that illegal aliens can’t attend public colleges and universities and one that would do the opposite – have been introduced during the 2008 session. Likewise, Representative Debbie Clary sponsored an amendment to the House budget that would have required all community college students to be in the United States legally. If this amendment failed, it reminds us that the debate over illegal aliens and community colleges is still raging. As this debate spills over into the legislative session, it is important to begin to separate fact from fiction.
Fiction: Federal law does not bar illegal aliens from receiving higher educational benefits.
Fact: Over the course of this debate, critics of the community college ban have gone from claiming that the law is “unsettled” to definitively asserting that federal law does not prohibit illegal aliens from attending public colleges and universities. They have done so on the basis of an unsigned letter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) written, not to the community college system or the N.C. attorney general, but to a local newspaper. To say the least, the legal status of this letter is unclear – a fact that prompted Congresswoman Sue Myrick to ask DHS why its recent letter conflicts with “the intent of federal law.”
An op-ed by a Duke Law professor muddied the waters even more, claiming that federal law only prohibits “transfer payments” to illegal aliens enrolled in public institutions. The law seems to do more than this when it defines public benefits as grants, contracts and licenses and a variety of other benefits, including postsecondary education, “for which payments or assistance” is provided to an “individual, household, or family.” The key here is what is meant by the term “assistance.” Is it redundant legalese or does it refer to broadly defined benefits? In either case, what is clear is that such assistance does not merely refer to “in-state tuition,” which is prohibited outright.
Fiction: This is a “hastily” crafted and “overhasty” policy.
Fact: The previous policy of requiring colleges to admit illegal aliens was only in effect from November 2007 to May 2008. If anything, this former policy was overhasty. While the community college system awaits clarification from the Department of Homeland Security it has decided to reinstate the policy that was in place from 2001 to 2004 – before the colleges started experimenting with enrolling illegal aliens. This is a prudent decision, especially if the law is unclear on this question.
Fiction: North Carolina is the first state to bar illegal aliens from receiving higher educational benefits.
Fact: This is true, to a point. The North Carolina Community College System was the first statewide system to ban illegal aliens from degree-granting programs. For the past six years, however, several prominent public institutions in Virginia have refused to enroll illegal aliens. This policy was challenged in federal court and ruled to be constitutional (Equal Access Ed. v. Merten (2004)). Two weeks ago, South Carolina went one step further, banning illegal aliens from attending all public universities and colleges.
Fiction: The number of enrolled students is so small as to be inconsequential.
Fact: The community college system reports that 112 self-identified illegal aliens are enrolled statewide. By contrast, Civitas’ analysis of U.S. Census data suggests that at least 10,000 illegal aliens are enrolled as undergraduates in the UNC and community college systems. Moreover, anecdotal evidence – such as at Cape Fear Community College, where the number of illegal alien students was set to go from 1 to 17 – suggests enrollment would have increased rapidly under the former policy. Related to this question is whether illegal aliens are taking seats from North Carolina students. In spite of the community college system’s open-door policy, some programs, such as nursing, have limited slots. It is thus theoretically possible that illegal aliens are taking such spots from U.S. citizens. This possibility is a reality within the state university system, where student acceptance rates are approximately 65 percent – and half that (35 percent) at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Finally, several commentators have suggested that prohibiting illegal aliens from attending community college is “inhumane.” This argument presumes that obtaining a taxpayer-subsidized college degree is a basic human right. Basic human rights, however, are universal and unchanging – and the need or desire for a college degree is neither. This is not to say that obtaining a college education is not important. But is it more important than the rule of law – which illegal immigration undermines – not to mention the will of the people?