In a passionate defense of allowing illegal immigrants to attend the state's community colleges, system President Martin Lancaster said Tuesday that there was no basis in policy or law to deny anyone admission.
Now the question will be considered by lawyers in the state Attorney General's Office. Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman at the office, said lawyers would examine state and federal laws and court decisions to determine the current state of the law.
The issue drew a storm of public outrage over a recent memo from the system's attorney directing all 58 colleges to admit illegal immigrants. The system has about 340 undocumented students out of more than 271,000 degree-seeking students.
Lancaster, whose successor is to be named Thursday, issued a lengthy eight-point statement Tuesday arguing that extending higher education to all residents was crucial for the state's economic future and was "the right thing to do."
"For North Carolina to be competitive in a global economy, it must depend on a knowledge-based workforce which makes it imperative that every future worker in North Carolina receive as much education as possible," said Lancaster, who will retire as system president next year.
"To deny a significant portion of tomorrow's workforce any higher education opportunities will not only hurt these young people who came to North Carolina through no fault of their own, but it will also significantly diminish their incomes forever. The consequences to North Carolina are reduced tax collections and potential payments for social services and incarceration long into the future."
Politicians have lined up to condemn the system's recent decision. Many colleges already admitted illegal immigrants, who are classified as out-of-state students. As a practical matter, high out-of-state tuition deters most from enrolling. Steve Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College, said his institution had not admitted illegal immigrants but will honor the system's directive. With $10,000 a year in tuition, fees and books, Scott said, "you're not going to get many takers."
When news of the Nov. 7 memo was reported last week, the system office in Raleigh was flooded with phone calls from angry citizens. The issue was picked up by conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly on the Fox network.
"For two days, it was relentless," said Audrey Bailey, community college system spokeswoman. It took six staff members to handle the calls. Callers say, "I don't want my tax dollars used to educate illegals," Bailey said.
The controversy threatens to overshadow a milestone for the system, which is expected to announce Thursday a president to succeed Lancaster. He will retire in May after serving almost 11 years. Finalists are Kennon Briggs, vice president for business and finance in the system office; Philip Day Jr., chancellor of City College of San Francisco; and Scott Ralls, president of Craven Community College.
Day said a California law allows immigrants who graduated from the state's public schools to be treated as in-state residents at community colleges. The investment has paid off, he said. He cited a young woman who is an honors student in industrial engineering and plans to transfer to a highly ranked university.
"Is that not better than forcing them to be on the outside looking in?" Day said by telephone from San Francisco.
Briggs declined to comment on the controversy; efforts to reach Ralls were unsuccessful.
The debate intensifies attention on what has long been a political job. Lancaster, a former legislator who served eight years as a congressman in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was successful in pushing the system's needs to the state legislature. In 2000, voters approved $600 million in borrowing for construction for the fast-growing colleges.
The N.C. Community College System is the third largest in the U.S., enrolling more than 800,000 students in degree programs and continuing education classes. With 58 campuses, it is the state's primary provider of work force preparation and adult education.
Last week, Gov. Mike Easley said he supported the policy of including illegal immigrants in that number. On Tuesday, he said the state's phones have been buzzing.
"I think most people seem to be upset that the borders have not been controlled, and that upsets me and every governor in the country who then gets the illegal immigrants in their state and then has to deal with the reality of it," Easley said.
Easley said the community colleges are trying to deal with the fact that, right or wrong, illegal immigrants are here.
"It's like catching a cold. I don't want a cold, ... but if I get it, I'm going to deal with it. I'm going to take the aspirin and whatever it is I got to do. I don't want any illegal immigrants in North Carolina, and the only way we can stop that is for Washington to control the borders. ... Washington has not acted. Therefore we are where we are."
(Staff writer Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.)
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