Learning While Undocumented: North Carolina Community College Students Are Caught in the Cross Hairs of Illegal Immigration Opponents

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

North Carolina's 58 community colleges have been key players in the state's fast-shifting economy, driven in large part by the numerous businesses flocking to the high-technology Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle area. Major employers like IBM, Novartis, Credit Suisse and EA Associates have all partnered with North Carolina Community College System institutions to keep employees trained on the latest in high technology.

In fact, a recent North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research study calls on the state to ramp up its investment in community colleges, declaring that two-year institutions are best equipped to deal with critical shortages in the number of nurses, teachers and biotechnology workers needed to sustain the state's economic growth. Nevertheless, recent actions by the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges threaten to deny the growing population of undocumented state residents any opportunity to get a community college education.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In response to a request from the state attorney general to clarify federal policy on the undocumented student issue, the Department of Homeland Security in July informed the state that federal law does not bar the admission of undocumented students by public colleges. Subsequently, numerous advocacy groups, editorial boards and the North Carolina Association of Community College presidents all asked the board to lift the ban on undocumented student enrollment enacted in May, in light of the federal government's finding.

Nevertheless, in August, the board voted to approve a motion by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue to continue the undocumented student ban while a study of the issue commissioned by the board is being conducted.

Perdue, who sits on the board in an ex-officio capacity, is the Democratic nominee for governor, and both she and her Republican opponent, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, are united in their desire to implement a permanent ban on the admission of undocumented students to any public college, in line with growing anti-illegal immigration fervor in the state.

Tony Asion, executive director of the Raleigh-based Hispanic advocacy group E1 Pueblo, says he is surprised both gubernatorial candidates have turned their backs on undocumented students, even those brought to the state as small children who eventually graduated from public North Carolina high schools.

"What is really sad here is that both gubernatorial candidates are saying the same thing. We kind of expect this from the right, but we certainly didn't expect this from the left," Asion says. At the same time, left-leaning Democrats once sympathetic to the plight of undocumented students "are trying to court the Latino vote here," Asion says. But "you know what? It doesn't fed any better getting beaten up by your friends than it does getting beaten up by your enemies."

Playing Political Football

A number of community college presidents statewide say their institutions should not be involved in illegal immigration politics.

"As an educator, it's difficult to deal with the politics because we're in the business of teaching students. Community colleges are not the immigration police. That's not what we signed on to do," says Wake Technical Community College President Stephen C. Scott, who is also the president of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents.

Scott adds, "All community college educators are in this business because we want to help adults learn and improve their lives. One of the things that bothers me, if the INS [now Immigration Customs Enforcement] is not able to control the problem, how in the world do you expect a bunch of underpaid teachers in the community college system to solve the immigration issue?"

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College President Betty Young expresses similar sentiments.

"The issue of immigration is not an issue to be addressed in the admissions offices of community colleges across this country," Young says. …