Migrants get colleges' nod

The state board's final vote is to admit illegal immigrants at the 58 community colleges.

Staff WriterMarch 20, 2010 

— The North Carolina legislature will have the final word - or lack of one - on whether the state's community colleges admit illegal immigrants.

The State Community College Board cast a final vote Friday to admit illegal immigrants at the 58 community college campuses. Illegal immigrants will have to pay out-of-state tuition, about $7,700 a year, and they can be removed from a class if it is full and a legal resident wants in.

The vote was the last step by the board in approving the new rule. It originally voted in favor of the change in September, and the vote Friday confirmed the decision after a public hearing in December and written comments.

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton cast the only "no" vote among board members, as he did in September.

"It is simply not the right time to place greater demands on our community colleges," Dalton said in a prepared statement. He was at a meeting of a state committee on the census Friday and did not attend the community college meeting. An aide cast a proxy vote for him.

But the debate may not be settled. The rule now goes to the state Rules Review Commission. If the commission receives 10 written objections asking for the legislature to review the rule, then it goes to the General Assembly. The legislature then can pass a law blocking the rule. If lawmakers take no action, the rule goes into effect.

Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger of Eden said there undoubtedly will be at least 10 citizens willing to file objections, and plenty of legislators will be eager to file a bill to stop the new rule.

But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would have to allow such a bill to come to a vote.

"That's impossible to predict today," said Schorr Johnson, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. "There would have to be a bill filed and discussed once session begins [in May]."

Bill Holmes, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney, also said it is too early to offer a prediction.

Immigration reform advocates applauded the community college board vote.

Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo, said it was a "no brainer," given that young people will be educated at no cost to the state because out-of-state tuition exceeds community colleges' costs.

"We have no problem incarcerating somebody at a cost of $39,000 a year," Asion said, "but we don't want to educate them at no cost? That makes no sense to me."

The requirement for out-of-state tuition, however, won't last long, said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, which opposes admission for illegal immigrants.

"This is a bad vote. It's part of a much larger national agenda," Gheen said. "There's an agenda afoot here, and they intend to give [illegal immigrants] all the benefits of full American citizens."

Gheen said proponents of admitting illegal immigrants waited until after Democrats won the election for governor in November 2008 to push the issue.

In May 2008, the system became one of the first in the nation to ban illegal immigrants entirely. At the time, Scott Ralls, the community college system's president, announced that the schools would adhere to a recommendation by the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper, citing federal laws, to stop enrolling undocumented students. Cooper's office later reversed its opinion, but the board decided to halt any additional action until it could review its policy.

The review, completed in April by the consulting firm JBL Associates, found that the colleges could profit from accepting illegal immigrants if they paid out-of-state tuition.

mjohnson@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-4774