A Capitol cop stood guard in the lobby of the community college system office early this month while staffers decorated for the holiday and buzzed about the coming announcement of a new president. The extra security was a precaution -- probably a wise one. The office had been the target of phone calls and e-mail messages from people angry over a topic with plenty of emotion but no resolution in U.S. society: illegal immigration.
The system's attorney had recently told all 58 community college campuses that there was no basis to deny admission to illegal immigrants -- an issue that is now under review by the state Attorney General's Office.
It's not that illegal immigrants were flooding the campuses. The $7,465 price tag for out-of-state tuition had, for the most part, been a barrier for undocumented students. There were only 340 among some 271,000 degree-seeking students across the state, and they were paying about 140 percent of the cost of instruction, according to community college officials.
The UNC system has also admitted illegal immigrants as out-of-state students, as spelled out in a 2004 policy. UNC system officials say they are aware of 27 illegal immigrants among its more than 200,000 students. On average, the out-of-state tuition paid $2,800 more than the cost of instruction, according to UNC.
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While illegal immigrants represented well below 1 percent of students in each system, their very presence at state campuses was enough to spark a public outcry.
"North Carolina taxpayers do not support the idea of the state of North Carolina doing anything to encourage more illegals to come here and stay here," said state Sen. Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, who said he has been contacted by more than 75 people. "I'm hearing that loud and clear from my constituents."
The debate will continue. UNC President Erskine Bowles said this month that the university system will begin to study the costs and benefits of offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, even though a similar proposal died in the legislature in 2005 after fierce opposition. The UNC study was recommended by a commission of business, community and academic leaders who spent months studying how universities can meet the state's future needs.
By law, public schools are obligated to educate the children of illegal immigrants. But the idea of providing affordable higher education has little public support, according to recent opinion polls. Only 12 percent of Americans think illegal immigrants should be given in-state tuition discounts, according to a nationwide poll released this month by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Most citizens don't want their government to look the other way when it comes to lawbreakers, Berger said. And the debate seems to dodge a larger question, he added, about the whole point of college degrees for illegal immigrants: "It ignores the fact that these people are not eligible to work legally."
For proponents, extending higher education to undocumented students is an economic no-brainer. Community College System President Martin Lancaster, who will retire next year, said it made no sense to erect a roadblock in front of children who have come to this country through no fault of their own and who have been educated in public schools here.
Closing the doors to college would not only hurt them, Lancaster said, but damage the state's economic competitiveness and create a permanent underclass.
Education works for immigrants the same way it does for other children, said Angela Kelley, the director of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to research and analysis of immigrants' contributions to the United States.
"The higher the education level, the higher the income they can command, the more they pay in taxes and the less they use benefits," she said. "It is a good thing for us as a society to let these kids get beyond what would otherwise be a dead end."
There are costs to not educating the students, some say. Hispanic immigrant teens have high dropout and teen pregnancy rates and, according to a 2005 state study, make up the fastest-growing segment of North Carolina's gang problem.
Each year in the United States, 65,000 undocumented young people who have lived in the country for at least five years graduate from high school, according to research at the Urban Institute in Washington.
Only a tiny portion go on to college.
The so-called DREAM Act, a federal bill that would have given illegal immigrants conditional legal status in order to enroll in college or join the military, was considered for debate in the U.S. Senate in October but failed to get enough votes to proceed. The issue is dead for now.
Sooner or later, Kelley said, the federal government will have to adopt new immigration legislation to deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. And it's better that the children not languish without education, Kelley said.
Though Congress has so far failed to pass immigration legislation, states are increasingly moving ahead with their own plans. Ten states have enacted laws to provide an in-state tuition benefit for illegal immigrants who have lived a certain amount of time in and finished high school in those states. Texas passed a law in 2001, and studies show the enrollment of undocumented students is small -- about 0.36 percent of the state's college students in 2004.
Mixed feelings in N.C.
Two years ago, a coalition of North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill that would have given illegal immigrants in-state tuition to the state's community colleges and universities. Despite the backing from big names in education and politics, including former Gov. Jim Hunt, the bill flamed out as a feisty debate raged on talk radio.
Robert Stromberg, who received his master's degree in international studies last week from N.C. State University, conducted an analysis of the proposed policy and projected an initial 432 students would take advantage of the in-state tuition benefit. His study found that the cost to the state would be less than benefits derived by the students, with tax revenues over the lifetime of students being more than enough to warrant the state investment.
"The population is going to stay," Stromberg said. "These individuals -- we're not going to put them on buses to leave."
The economic argument doesn't convince Lynton Ray, who works for a lumber supply company in Clayton. To him, it's an issue of fairness. He sees too many black kids slipping through the cracks.
"It took us 150 years to get where we are, and we're still not there," said Ray, who is black. "We're still being discriminated against."
Linda Folda, a retired librarian from Chapel Hill, stands with Lancaster on the issue. What North Carolina needs is an educated work force, she added. "As far as I'm concerned, we should not deny anyone an education," she said.
There were 380,000 Hispanics in North Carolina according to the 2000 census. The current estimate is 600,000, of which half are thought to be here illegally.
A study last year by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers found that Hispanics pump about $9 billion annually into the state's economy as consumers and taxpayers, but the influx of new workers also holds down wages.
One of the researchers, John Kasarda, said the economic impact could double in five years. His view is that North Carolina is better off educating all of its residents to the highest level, but he understands the feelings of those against a ticket to college for undocumented immigrants.
"The Hispanic population is going to continue to grow," Kasarda said.
"The state has got to take a good hard look at its future and make decisions based on its best interest."