The office of North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper ignited a firestorm of controversy recently by issuing an advisory letter calling on the state's public colleges to bar admittance to undocumented immigrants. The opinion is based on a federal law that bans such immigrants from receiving state benefits.

The president of the state's community college system requested the opinion last year after announcing a new policy allowing all 58 campuses to admit students regardless of immigration status. The move provoked a national outcry that led the system's leaders to seek Cooper's legal advice.

In response to the advisory, the state's community college system announced that it would change its open-door policy and no longer admit "undocumented or illegal immigrants" into curriculum degree programs -- though they would still be able to continue to sign up for non-college courses such as GED or continuing education classes. The community college system reports that in the 2006-2007 academic year it enrolled 112 students without proper documentation out of a total of 296,540 curriculum students.

Gov. Mike Easley and University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles questioned the attorney general's decision, citing "considerable legal disagreement about what the relevant federal law really says." Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security -- the agency charged with enforcing federal immigration law -- said admission policies were up to the schools.

That hasn't stopped politicians from both major parties from seizing on the issue in this election year. The parties' gubernatorial candidates -- Democrat Beverly Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory -- have announced their support for barring undocumented immigrants from state colleges.

Meanwhile, state Rep. George Cleveland, a two-term Republican from eastern North Carolina, has filed legislation that would ban undocumented immigrants from the state's public universities and community colleges. And state Sen. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte -- the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor -- has introduced an even broader bill called the N.C. Citizen Protection Act that would bar undocumented immigrants from receiving state benefits.

The state's new policy toward undocumented immigrants has been condemned as "harsh and counterproductive" by a USA Today editorial, which points out that it punishes young people for their parents' decision. The editorial also observes that the push to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting an education could ultimately backfire against the state:

Skeptics ask: Why bother educating residents who can't legally hold jobs?

One answer is that is that if they do leave the country, they, like millions of foreigners who have benefited from U.S. educations, will have a more favorable view of the USA.

Another answer is that eventually, Congress will pass something akin to the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. This measure would provide a path to citizenship for youths, brought here before they turned 16, who head to college or the military.

When that day arrives, states that made the effort to educate all their residents will be glad they did.