This article was originally published in the News & Observer.
Kudos to N.C. Community College System (NCCCS) President Scott Ralls. Faced with the prospect of yet again changing the community college system’s stance on enrolling illegal aliens, Ralls asked the State Board of Community Colleges to take up this controversy at its next meeting on August 15. Before making a decision, the board should consider that the NCCCS has changed its mind four times over the past seven years about whether to admit illegal aliens. The board should also consider that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has suggested North Carolina decide for itself whether to admit illegal aliens to its community colleges. By this, I don’t think DHS meant a largely anonymous state board, albeit one that includes a handful of elected officials, such as Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue and Treasurer Richard Moore. “Deciding for itself” means letting the voters – or their elected representatives – resolve this question, as they should have done during the 2008 session.
Of course, the problem is that the General Assembly doesn’t want to decide – or at least they didn’t in an election year. This explains why the House failed to consider a proposal by Representative George Cleveland (R-Onslow) that would have banned illegal aliens from all state colleges and universities. Likewise, legislators failed to take up a counter measure, sponsored by Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), that would have prevented the community college system from inquiring about immigration status for admission purposes. In May, House Speaker Joe Hackney (D-Orange) confessed that the Democratic caucus hadn’t talked about it. This is primarily because one week before the session began the attorney general’s office made the problem go away. They did so by suggesting that the colleges reinstitute their previous policy (implemented in 2001) of not admitting illegal aliens while also petitioning the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for clarification. Oddly enough, the colleges took this advice, knowing DHS was likely to reply as it did, as foreshadowed by an unofficial letter to the News & Observer dated May 9, 2008. Even more curious is that DHS’s formal response was not released until one week after the 2008 session ended, thus permitting the General Assembly to go home without having to vote on this issue.
Based on the July 9, 2008, letter from the Department of Homeland Security, the attorney general’s office advised the NCCCS that “absent a state statute which addresses the enrollment of undocumented aliens,” the community college system is free to decide whether to admit illegal aliens. So now we are back where we started.
In the meantime, South Carolina did decide – namely, in June their legislature banned illegal aliens from attending all public colleges and universities. In doing so they joined Virginia as the second state in the Southeast to limit illegal alien admissions to public colleges and universities.
Here in North Carolina, the voters seem to have decided as well. When Civitas polled this question in August 2005, 69 percent opposed providing educational benefits to illegal aliens. Nearly three years later, we polled this question again and found 68 percent of voters oppose allowing illegal immigrants to enroll in community colleges. Now, 68 percent is not an overwhelming number. (By comparison, 91 percent support requiring employers to verify the legal status of anyone they employ.) But it should be enough of a majority to give the State Board of Community Colleges pause before overruling the system’s current policy of not admitting illegal aliens. Let’s give the voters a chance to have their say on this issue, which means asking the General Assembly to finally decide, not to mention the next governor.