Archived Opinion

Community colleges should admit children of all immigrants

Too often debates about immigration veer way off course, inhabiting some netherland of hysteria that is so far from reality it borders on the ridiculous. In the past couple of weeks we in North Carolina have witnessed just such a situation as the decision that community colleges should admit illegal immigrants exploded into newspapers and radio talk shows.

Just say “illegal immigrants” and a cascade of opinions ranging from hatred to sympathy pours out of people’s mouths. When the lawyer for North Carolina’s community college system said a couple of weeks ago that illegal immigrants have to be admitted to schools in the state system, it unleashed a firestorm, mostly from those who disagreed with the decision

And once again, perhaps more than on any other domestic issue, I found myself divided. I believe strongly that part of this nation’s strength lies in adherence to fundamental laws deriving from our Constitution. The rule of law, of course, says don’t admit the illegals to our community colleges.

But I don’t adhere to that belief.

Just as strong as a belief in this country’s laws, however, is my belief that anyone who works an honest day’s work and who contributes should be given an opportunity to join our society. I don’t care if that person is from Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or a poor village in Mexico. If they adhere to our laws once here and contribute, let’em stay. We will be stronger economically, culturally and ethically.

Shouting it down

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Up until last week, individual community colleges in North Carolina were allowed to make their own decisions about whether to admit undocumented immigrants. The state board, however, chose to have its lawyer research the issue and order that each community college admit these students. That decision is in line with a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said public school systems could not deny the children of illegal immigrants a free public education.

In this particular case, the issue is more emotional than anything else. According to state, there is a tiny number — 320 statewide — of undocumented immigrants enrolled in the community colleges. That’s it. North Carolina makes it cost prohibitive for these students because they must pay out-of-state tuition, which is a truer reflection of the actual cost of the education. That means the cost for these students is about $3,700 per semester. I personally know immigrants who wanted to attend community college and had to go to work instead because they could not afford the tuition.

Not allowing these students to enroll is also contrary to the open enrollment policy our state’s community colleges have had since their inception in 1958. This policy has allowed North Carolina to give its least-prepared young people and adults the opportunity to better themselves, and in turn has helped our state prosper. Denying this opportunity to high school graduates who happen to be the children of undocumented immigrants would be an about face for the community college system.

When this decision was announced, every major candidate for governor in this state — Republican and Democratic — immediately blasted it. Most cited the fact that the immigrants in question were illegal, and therefore should not be admitted to the schools. Nowhere did these candidates discuss the fact that most of these immigrant families pay state income and sales tax, property taxes in the counties in which they reside, and that they hold jobs that make our state’s economy stronger.

Surprise from Easley

From my perspective, Gov. Mike Easley has been a very weak and ineffectual governor. Aside from his support for the lottery, there’s been little emanating from the governor’s mansion in terms of new ideas, great initiatives or progressive leadership.

But Easley made me proud last week. Here’s what he had to say on this issue: “The people we are talking about were brought here as babies and young children through no fault of their own. They distinguished themselves throughout our K-12 (public school) system. Now, I’m not willing to grind my heel in their faces and slam the door on them. The Community College System has to be open to them in order for them to be productive members of our society and help North Carolina and America compete in the world economy.”

Easley is absolutely right. These 18-year-olds are not the lawbreakers every one of the candidates for governor say they are. They did not immigrate illegally, they were brought here by their parents or born here to undocumented aliens. Many of them have never been to Mexico, and if so only for short visits. Many are Mexican by birth but American by culture. Very few of them are going back to where their parents came from because it’s not their home. So if we don’t allow them the opportunity to go to college, we’re consigning most of them to a permanent underclass that will eventually cause more problems for this country than it will cost to educate them.

The real test

Leaders in Washington have failed miserably to find a solution to our immigration problems. We need to tighten border security by hiring more agents and develop a guest worker and residency program that allows those already here to work and pay taxes legally. We must find a way to do background checks on immigrants — legal and illegal — already in this country and deport those who have committed felony-type crimes in their homeland.

This is an issue on which I am in almost total agreement with President George Bush, and one that I hoped he would push forward during his first term. Unfortunately, his administration has spent all its political capital on fighting terrorism and has not been able to get anything through Congress on immigration. It’s another of the great failures of this administration..

The problem of illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America has been clouded by many people’s strong feelings about fighting terrorism. Too many confuse the need to keep terrorists out this country with a sound immigration and guest worker program. These are different issues, but somehow we have foisted our hatred of terrorists on Mexican immigrants. We must separate these problems if we are to solve them.

At home

We are at the nexus of the immigration debate to come. North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia are the states now experiencing the most dramatic increases in Hispanic populations. The southwest, Florida and California have more illegal immigrants and have been dealing with immigration issues for decades. As the immigrants move north, the nation will be forced to confront the issue.

One of the first steps is to vanquish the argument that these immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. That’s bull, and most people know that even if they don’t want to admit it. They take the jobs Americans don’t want. And those jobs are still there. If a Caucasian American wanted to pick tomatoes or dig ditches for sprinkler systems, I suspect they could find work.

What’s more obvious is that we don’t need to punish the children of the undocumented workers. Providing opportunities for these youths may not appease the red-meat conservatives, but it’s a much wiser and humane policy than any other alternative. It’s also idealistic, this belief that embracing change and encouraging hard work is a good thing in and of itself. But some of us believe that’s exactly what’s been missing from most American leaders — a willingness to take the high road in the face of critics who want to pander to constituent groups.

I’ll stand with Easley on this one.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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