Many states have debated the legality of extending in-state tuition rates  to students living in the United States illegally.
In North Carolina, the debate over the legality of a more fundamental matter -- admitting undocumented students at all -- has only just begun.
The North Carolina Community College System set off a firestorm in November  when it issued a directive indicating that all 58 colleges  must begin admitting undocumented students under the open admissions policy. But the state attorney general's office has now called for reversing course. The office sent out an advisory letter Tuesday suggesting a return to an earlier system policy, propagated in 2001, which limited enrollment of illegal immigrants on the basis that federal law restricts their eligibility for most state and local public benefits. “Postsecondary education is one of those benefits that undocumented or illegal aliens are not eligible to receive,” the 2001 policy reads.
In the letter from the attorney general’s office, JB Kelly argues that without a state law explicitly listing post secondary education as an eligible benefit for illegal immigrants, or guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, the 2001 policy limiting their enrollment “would more likely withstand judicial scrutiny.”
"State law may provide eligibility for postsecondary education benefits to an alien who is not lawfully present in the Untied States only to the extent any citizen or national of the United States receives the same eligibility regardless of state residence,” says the letter,  which is posted on the Raleigh News and Observer’s Web site. “North Carolina has not enacted such laws.”
The issue has been political dynamite  in North Carolina since the November directive, although the number of undocumented students enrolled (at non-resident tuition rates) is very small (112 in a survey earlier this academic year, a system spokeswoman said Wednesday).
The system has gradually moved toward opening admissions for illegal immigrants. Between the 2001 and 2007system policies -- which are clearly at odds with one another -- was a 2004 policy memo leaving the matter up to the local colleges. As of the last count in 2005, 21 of the 58 colleges were barring illegal immigrants. All were immediately to begin admitting undocumented students under the community college system’s November policy; that policy is still in place, Audrey Kates Bailey, a system spokeswoman, said early Wednesday evening.
“We’ve received the letter. We’ll respond accordingly,” Bailey said, adding that the system’s lawyer is now reviewing it. The system doesn’t have a response to offer yet, she said, but indicated that a reporter should check back this afternoon.
“We will review it and we’ll give the proper information to our colleges as soon as we complete the review.”