It’s a right of passage for teens, the Holy Grail of high school, an iconic symbol of young adulthood freedom — that tiny piece of plastic called a driver’s license.
Undocumented workers staged a sit-in at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office last week to protest the sheriff’s alleged targeting of Latino immigrants through deliberately placed traffic stops.
A debate over whether the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office racially profiled Latinos and used a traffic checkpoint as an excuse to ensnare illegal immigrants is not over yet.
North Carolina’s community colleges may have flung open their doors to illegal immigrants once again, but only a handful of undocumented students are likely to trickle into area colleges next fall.
Most undocumented students face a practical dead-end after graduating from high school.
The State Board of Community Colleges’ requirement that undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition, along with the state’s refusal to grant them professional certification, have deterred many from moving on to college.
Only one or two undocumented students have applied to Haywood Community College for its fall 2010 semester, said Jennifer Herrera, director of enrollment management at the college.
According to Herrera, charging out-of-state tuition has kept the number of undocumented students to a minimum.
“The fact that they have to pay out-of-state tuition regardless is a hardship,” said Herrera.
Currently, HCC charges $7,700 for out-of-state tuition, while in-state students pay only $1,600.
Similarly, Southwestern Community College enrolls only one or two undocumented students each year, according to Phil Weast, dean of student services at SCC.
At SCC, an in-state student now pays $52 per credit, whereas out-of-state students hand over $243 per credit.
Other than the markup in price, both colleges said that undocumented students go through the same admissions process as any other in-state applicant.
Randall Holcomb, spokesman for Western Carolina University, said he was not aware of any undocumented students at the school.
Out-of-state tuition at WCU stands at about $7,300 this year.
In general, more undocumented students show up to adult and continuing education classes at local colleges.
Laura Leatherwood, executive director of continuing and adult education at HCC, said the college does not keep track of how many undocumented students take those courses.
Undocumented students pay the same fees as everyone else and are allowed to take most classes, excluding those on law enforcement.
While state policy prohibits professional licensing of illegal immigrants, students can still enter a number of fields with a college degree.
Attending college could still help undocumented students learn how to repair computers, manage hotels, become a professional cook, or begin a business, Weast said.
In the past nine years, the state board has flip-flopped four times on this particular issue. The most recent reversal came in September when the board overturned a May 2008 ban on undocumented immigrants from community colleges.
Gov. Beverly Perdue has said it is ultimately up to the federal government to decide how to handle illegal immigrants, but for now, she does not support allowing them to enter U.S. colleges.
“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would educate students in public universities who are not legally allowed to work here,” Perdue said to Raleigh TV station WRAL.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said the board’s decision must be reviewed.
“We need to revisit that policy change,” said Rapp. “I think we need to look at it and take into account all the factors that go into undocumented students in the school system.”
Rapp would not provide further comment.
Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the decision is obviously up to the state board, but he hopes the board will consider that allowing illegal immigrants to attend college and join the work force legitimately would mean they could begin to pay taxes in exchange for the benefits they already receive.
Haire said the board should also take into account that many undocumented workers work long hours and have a good work ethic.
“They do some of the dirtiest work that you can’t get other people to do,” said Haire.