Struggling With Status of Undocumented Students

Carisa Chappell, Community College Times, September 24, 2009

States aren’t sure what to do about the issue of undocumented immigrants. It’s become especially controversial in places like North Carolina, where during the last eight years, the state community college system has changed its mind four times regarding whether to allow undocumented students to enroll at its institutions.

In 2001, the system prohibited undocumented immigrants from enrolling. In 2004, it allowed each college to decide. In 2007, all community colleges were mandated to admit undocumented students. But that was reversed last year when the system prohibited its member colleges from enrolling undocumented students into degree-granting programs.

Last week, system officials changed their minds again, allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in classes, as long as they have graduated from a U.S. high school.

North Carolina is not alone in the quandary about how to handle the dilemma, and states vary in their approaches, said Teresita Wisell, director of the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education (CCCIE).

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Currently, 10 states–including states with large immigrant populations, such as California, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and Texas–allow undocumented immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition levels if they meet certain conditions, Wisell noted Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Virginia charge undocumented immigrants out-of-state tuition.

“The other extreme is those states that do not allow undocumented student to enroll in community colleges at all,” Wisell said.

About two years ago, Arizona passed a law denying in-state college tuition and other state funded benefits to illegal immigrants. {snip}

As a result more than 3,400 community college students and close to 300 university students paid the higher non-resident tuition rate because they couldn’t prove their legal status. Proponents of the law argue that the extra tuition money is helping colleges to offer more programs and services, while opponents contend that the higher tuition cost is preventing thousands of potentially undocumented immigrants from enrolling. Opponents add that the law is also hurting the state economically, as many industries are scrambling to find skilled workers to replace retiring baby boomers. Many of these jobs could be filled if undocumented immigrants could afford the required training at community colleges.

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“Should the Dream Act pass, then enrollment in college becomes a clear avenue to conditional residency and subsequently citizenship,” said Wisell, adding it might provide for a more consistent policy across states.

However, proponents of the bill haven’t been able to muster the votes in Congress needed to pass it.

Several organizations, such as CCCIE, are working to educate the public on the legislation. Wisell said that the consortium, which was founded last year, will focus on raising awareness about immigrants at community colleges and the challenges they face, creating a vehicle for promising practices to be shared and partnering with other organizations to create an understanding of the issues around credentialing and licensing for skilled immigrants who’ve been educated or trained outside of the U.S.

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