The ban on illegal immigrants in North Carolina's community colleges will stand while the board that oversees them conducts an extensive study to craft a long-term policy on the issue.
A divided State Board of Community Colleges voted Friday 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.
That decision comes after nearly a decade of legal and political wrangling over whether undocumented immigrants should be able to attend community colleges 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 North Carolina.
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, board members said.
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, president of the North Carolina community college system.
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 generated little heated debate.
Board chair Hilda Pinnix Ragland threatened Thursday to have any rogue onlookers who failed to stay poised during a discussion escorted out of the room.
"Some of you may feel compelled to engage a little stronger than others," she said. "I encourage you not to have outbursts."
The discussions were civil, but at least one board member—albeit a non-voting one—spoke in support of allowing illegal immigrants to attend North Carolina 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."
Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, who attended Thursday and Friday board meetings via speakerphone, urged the board to uphold the current ban on admitting undocumented students while they 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, opposes allowing illegal immigrants to attend state community colleges.
The most recent confusion over the issue came this spring. Board attorney Shante Martin said in a May 13 opinion that colleges need to ban illegal immigrants from community colleges, advice this week she said "doesn't hold water anymore."
Martin's May 13 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.