Illegal alien curbs may fail
Sponsors say leadership won't let bills on colleges be heard
By Kristin Collins
The News & Observer (Raleigh), June 18, 2008
An attempt to rewrite state law to permanently bar illegal immigrants from state community colleges appears headed for failure.
Two bills have been introduced this legislative session, both seeking to toughen the community colleges' new policy of excluding people from degree programs if they can't prove legal status. The bills would bar illegal immigrants from all courses, including English as a Second Language or continuing education, and one would keep them out of the state's universities as well.
'They're illegal; it's as simple as that,' said Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican who is sponsoring one of the bills. 'The state should be doing anything it can to discourage illegal aliens from being in the state.'
But Cleveland and Sen. Phil Berger, sponsor of the second bill, said their measures appear doomed to die in committee. They said the legislature's leadership has refused to allow them to be heard.
The failure of the bills has come as a surprise to many advocates, who said before the session began that state lawmakers were almost certain to pass one of the country's harshest laws on the education of illegal immigrants.
Andrea Bazan, a longtime Hispanic advocate and president of the philanthropic group Triangle Community Foundation, said she thought a new, restrictive law would pass on the first day of this year's legislative session. But she said momentum was defused by an advisory letter released by the state Attorney General's Office just before the start of the session.
The May 6 letter recommended that the community colleges not admit illegal immigrants to degree programs, saying it was a possible violation of federal law. The Community College System immediately changed its policy to reflect the advice.
Bazan said the move stirred advocacy from those who want all students to have access to education, regardless of immigration status, and made the bill more controversial than many expected.
'With all the hoopla lately, I think [legislators] are waiting to see what's going to happen,' Bazan said. 'Immigration is a hot potato no one wants to touch.'
'To better themselves'
Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said he thinks many legislators have come to the conclusion that it's wrong to deny access to education, which explains the bills' failure.
The handful of illegal immigrants who attend state colleges and universities pay out-of-state tuition, which college and university leaders say is more than the cost of their instruction.
'These people we're talking about were 2 and 3 years old when they came here,' Luebke said. 'To deny them the chance to pay out-of-state tuition when they're trying to better themselves seems extremely punitive.'
Luebke was one of 10 Democrats who signed onto a bill that would guarantee illegal immigrants access to state colleges. He said it also will probably fail this session.
Those who argue for a crackdown on illegal immigrants say they are disappointed in lawmakers' failure to bar them. They say that they aren't confident the community colleges will keep their current policy.
'It can change like the wind,' said Ron Woodard, who runs the anti-illegal immigration group N.C. Listen. 'It's changed back and forth already. We think it would be better if it's just finalized.'
The colleges say they are waiting on further advice from the federal Department of Homeland Security on whether federal law requires them to consider immigration status in admissions. They say that if the federal government assures them it is legal, they will return to admitting illegal immigrants at out-of-state tuition rates.
Audrey Bailey, a spokeswoman for the colleges, said they have not taken a position on this year's bills.
Cleveland and Berger said they will file their bills again in 2009.
'Public concern about this issue is so great that we need to listen to the people,' said Berger, an Eden Republican. 'I don't think the issue's going to go away.'