The ban on illegal immigrants in North Carolina's community colleges will stand while the board that oversees the institutions conducts an extensive study to craft a long-term policy on the issue.
A divided State Board of Community Colleges voted Aug. 15 to maintain the ban on undocumented students while the board undertook a study—flouting the advice of the staff attorney who said the community colleges' open door policy includes admission of illegal immigrants.
Eleven of the 20 voting members voted in favor; four members were absent.
But the board was unanimous in its decision to hand the matter over to consultants for study on how other states handle illegal immigrants who want to attend college, and how colleges verify who is a U.S. citizen.
The decision came amid concern among community college staff on how to handle the administration of such a task.
Van Wilson, community college system associate vice president for academic and student services, said colleges can't use the options available to employers to verify citizenship status, such as the online system, E-Verify, that helps employers check the work status of new hires.
He said verification is labor intensive for staff that is already "stretched to the max" and is grappling with pressure on colleges to rely less on Social Security numbers in order to protect student identities.
A key interest among board members is how other states such as South Carolina that have pursued similar restrictions have handled the issues that accompany identifying the citizenship status of their students.
In South Carolina, where the legislature recently voted to require public colleges to verify citizenship and to deny entry for illegal immigrants, higher education officials are studying which tools to use to verify citizenship, said Scott Verzyl, assistant vice provost and director of admission at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
He said university officials are considering whether they can use data kept by the U.S. Department of Education unit that processes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which provides some citizenship information.
They are also looking at what is referred to as the SAVE database, which allows access to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services records and helps determine non-citizens' immigration status, he said.
"The intent is ... that we don't have people who are pretending to be citizens who are not," Verzyl said.
Officials are also studying how much this will cost colleges in terms of extra staff and technology, he said.
The N.C. community college decision comes after nearly a decade of legal and political wrangling over whether undocumented immigrants should be able to attend these institutions in North Carolina.
"Our students and staff have been whip-sawed on this position too many times over months and years," said board member Stuart Fountain. "We felt like we just don't want the risk of having flip-flopping on this question prior to when we get this study done."
Undocumented immigrants make up a tiny fraction of those who attend community college in the state.
A total of 112 students in 2006-07 were illegal immigrants who enrolled at one of the system's 58 colleges, system officials said. Nearly 300,000 students total that year enrolled in degree-seeking programs.
The N.C. community college system has changed its position on the admission of illegal immigrants five times in the last eight years, said R. Scott Ralls, system president.
The most recent confusion over the issue of whether to admit illegal immigrants to community colleges came this spring. Board attorney Shante Martin said in a May 13 opinion that community colleges need to ban illegal immigrants, advice last week she said "doesn't hold water anymore."
Martin's earlier memo followed the advice of the N.C. Attorney General's office, which stated May 3 that illegal immigrants should not be admitted to avoid conflicts with federal law.
Those decisions came under fire in July, when the N.C. Attorney General received a letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which said it was not a violation of federal law to admit illegal immigrants to community colleges.
That means with the federal government's hands out of the matter, and no state law clarifying whether immigrants could attend community colleges, it was up to the state board that oversees community colleges to decide.
Before the board voted, Ralls advocated that community colleges follow the system's open door policy while it debates a more permanent policy.
"While many of these students may not have arrived legally, many came as minors," Ralls said Thursday. "For what it's worth, I have trouble punishing minors for the actions of their parents."
Fountain said he wants a new policy in place on illegal immigrants and college admission by the beginning of academic year 2009-10.
The debate among state board members was expected to draw vitriol, but was generally civil. Yet at least one board member—albeit a non-voting one—spoke in support of allowing illegal immigrants to attend community colleges.
"If they have the desire to learn, then they need that opportunity to get the education," said Jeana El Sadder, a student representative on the board from Rockingham Community College. "To punish them for something their parents did—to me, that's not right."
Jason Britt, 21, said he supported the board's Friday decision. "I think they were in a very hard position," said Britt, a student at Bladen Community College. "I think they had to do something, because community colleges are wanting an answer."
Student Jesse Presnell, 19, echoed El Sadder's concern over barring illegal immigrants, and said the issue is one divided not only by partisan lines, but also among generational lines.
"When you have a board full of mostly older people, you're going to have mostly older opinions," he said.
Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who attended last week's board meetings via speakerphone, urged the board to uphold the current ban while it debated any substantial policy changes.
"I cannot see how we, as a board, can justify such erratic policy-making to the people of this state," she wrote in a letter to the board.
Perdue is the Democratic nominee for governor; her opponent, Republican Pat McCrory, also opposes allowing illegal immigrants to attend state community colleges.
Other prominent state Republicans have jumped into the fray on the issue as well. U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick said earlier this month she wanted to introduce legislation that would prohibit any college or university that knowingly enrolls illegal immigrants from receiving federal money.
And as reported by the Greenboro News & Record, last January, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx wrote a letter to UNC System President Erskine Bowles asking him to prohibit illegal immigrants who live in North Carolina from paying in-state tuition. "Giving special treatment to illegal aliens is fundamentally unjust to both North Carolinians and legal immigrants who have invested a great deal to comply with our immigration laws or obtain legal citizenship," she wrote.
A shorter version of this story was posted online Aug. 15.