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North Carolina's State Board of Community Colleges punted in the face of political pressure Friday, approving a “comprehensive study” of the issue of enrolling illegal immigrants while continuing its ban on their enrollment in the meantime.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a member of the board and the Democratic candidate for governor, was behind the motion to maintain the ban while the study is underway.

“I’m against allowing illegal immigrants who can never work legally in North Carolina to attend community colleges in North Carolina,” the Raleigh News and Observer quoted Perdue as saying Thursday.

“We have a responsibility to have a sound policy,” the state board chair, Hilda Pinnix-Ragland, said in a statement. “We owe it to the constituents of the state and especially the students.”

In a survey earlier this year, the system identified 112 undocumented students enrolled in the system’s 58 community colleges. Yet, despite the small numbers of illegal immigrants apparently enrolled -- these students, classified as out-of-staters, paid prohibitively expensive tuition rates five times higher than the rate for legal North Carolina residents – the issue has exploded in this political season.

“It’s bigger than the 112 kids that have been involved,” said Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Latino advocacy organization.

“My sense is that the board is actually trying to not make a decision, and buy some time, waiting for January when the state legislature comes in,” said Asion. “I can just about guarantee that somebody in the General Assembly is going to introduce a bill saying that undocumented students shouldn’t be going to school.”

In most other states, the debate centers on the question of whether or not to extend lower in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants, with their ability to enroll a given. In June, however, South Carolina became the only state to ban undocumented students from attending public colleges, according to Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston and expert in immigration and higher education law.

'Political Courage'

The board's decision to study the issue "was probably a wise move," Matthew S. Garrett, the retiring president of Central Carolina Community College, said via e-mail.

"The issue is super heated right now by the fact that we have elections in November and every candidate is forced to take a stand. This topic is actually so complicated that it will be better to take time and really study all the implications of the various options. If this study extends beyond Election Day, it will also help to take politics out of the final decision. Hopefully, the final decision will be based upon logic more than emotion."

The debate has moved far beyond the simple question of legality that prompted the ban on illegal immigrants in the first place: That question, after all, has been answered.

By way of history, in November, the community college system issued a directive requiring that all of its colleges admit undocumented students, superseding a 2004 policy leaving the matter up to individual colleges. Then, in May, a letter from the state attorney general’s office advised a return to an even earlier system policy that barred them from enrolling in college-level courses, suggesting that in the absence of state legislation or clarification from the federal government, a much more restrictive approach “would more likely withstand judicial scrutiny.” The colleges accepted the advice, announcing that they would immediately stop admitting illegal immigrants to degree programs.

U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has since offered the federal clarification sought, and in fact undermined the state-level legal advice that was the basis for the ban, stating in a July 9 letter that “individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public post-secondary institutions. States may bar or admit illegal aliens from enrolling in public post-secondary institutions either as a matter of policy or through legislation. Please note, however, that any state policy or legislation on this issue must use federal immigration status standards to identify which applicants are illegal aliens.”

Now, with that cleared up, the state community college board voted Friday to maintain the restrictions while it hires an independent consultant to study issues surrounding these students' admission, including practices in other states, processes for differentiating citizens from illegal immigrants, and conditions under which undocumented students are admitted.

"It just seems to me that at every turn they’ve made the wrong decision," said Olivas. "They're letting the thing fester."

“They’re dithering about this in public, issuing press releases, just showing how inadequate they are to the task.”

"Where's the political courage?"

In Search of Something Definitive

At this point, however, with the wound having festered to the point of infection, several North Carolina community college leaders agreed with Central Carolina's Garrett that taking a step back and studying the issue might be the prudent course.

"I think that the board is exercising good fiduciary and policy thinking at this point in time by not being rushed into a decision," said Stephen Scott, president of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents and the leader at Wake Technical Community College.

Still, the board's direction differs somewhat from that proposed earlier this month by the presidents' association -- which not only reaffirmed the system's "open door" admission philosophy, but also pointed out that a policy allowing for the admission of undocumented students already exists in the state (in the university system). “The undocumented immigrant admissions policy for the North Carolina Community College System should mirror the current admissions policy of the University of North Carolina campuses,” the association said in an August 1 statement.

Since 2004, the state's university system has had a set of guidelines allowing for the admission of qualified undocumented students, with certain limitations. Among them: that they pay out-of-state tuition, for one, and that they graduated from a U.S. high school. In addition, "When considering whether or not to admit an undocumented alien into a specific program of study, constituent institutions should take into account that federal law prohibits the states from granting professional licenses to undocumented aliens."

“In all candor, what we want is just a rule," Scott said. "I believe Scott Ralls [the system president] is quoted as saying in the last eight years, the rules involved have changed five times." (Ralls made a statement to that effect in addressing the state board on Thursday.)

"I feel like the proverbial ping-pong ball going back and forth and I’m sure the students feel worse. We would like to get something definitive for our students and go on with the business of education."

The North Carolina Community College Faculty Association polled its members on the issue in May, said Ann Russell, the association's president and the dean of distance and evening programs (and English instructor) at Bladen Community College. "Overwhelmingly, faculty felt that we teach the students who come to us and always have."

Given the emotional and political volatility, "I am grateful to hear that the State Board will do a study," Russell said.

"We're very pleased that the State Board made this decision to try to address it in a whole fashion, instead of piecemeal."

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