Nearly three months after recommending that North Carolina’s community colleges ban illegal immigrants from enrolling in degree programs, because of potential violations of federal immigration law, the State Attorney General’s office issued a clarification (PDF link) late Thursday afternoon essentially reversing its recommendation.

The federal Department of Homeland Security “does not consider admission of undocumented aliens to public post-secondary educational institutions to be prohibited by federal law,” the attorney general’s office said in a letter to the community college system attorney dated July 24.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of DHS informed Attorney General Roy Cooper that he was wrong to cite federal law in advocating for a ban on illegal immigrants at North Carolina colleges. However, the N.C. Community College System will continue to deny admission to illegal immigrants seeking degrees, according to system spokesperson Chancy Kapp, until a decision is made by the State Board of Community Colleges. The board meets Aug. 14.

N.C. Community College System President R. Scott Ralls issued the moratorium in May, citing an advisory letter from Cooper. Of the 500,000 degree-seeking students in the system, an estimated 112 are undocumented, according to community college officials. However, they are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which can cost at least four times as much as in-state rates.

Ralls stated in a press release on the school system’s Web site that “until we receive further clarification, we will no longer admit individuals classified as illegal or undocumented immigrants into curriculum degree programs.” Cooper’s office then wrote Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, asking whether federal law prohibited NCCCS from admitting illegal immigrants to community colleges.

“The advisory letter received at that time, from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, offered the advice that we were probably in violation of federal law unless we received clarification,” Kapp told the Indy in an interview. “Dr. Ralls was very concerned about acting against legal advice, from the State Attorney General’s office, and both followed the legal advice and asked for further clarification immediately.”

Jim Pendergraph, a local ICE director, wrote the N.C. Attorney General’s office that “individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public post-secondary institutions.” He emphasized that ICE does not consider college admission a “public benefit” regulated by federal immigration policy, and said that individual states can bar or admit illegal immigrants either through state policy or legislation. Two bills are currently being discussed in the Legislatureone that would ban illegal immigrants from attending college in the state, and another that would allow admission.

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