Illegal immigrants would be barred from attending all Georgia public colleges under a bill a Senate committee passed Wednesday.
Keish Kim, 20, of Roswell and an illegal immigrant, can't hide her emotion as she talks to the House Higher Education Committee during a hearing on a bill that would ban illegal immigrants from attending any public college in Georgia.
Senate Bill 458 also would relax some requirements and tighten others as it relates to the sweeping immigration bill lawmakers passed last year. But it was the proposed rule of banning some students from the 35 colleges in the University System of Georgia and the 25 in the Technical College System of Georgia that occupied nearly all of the 90-minute discussion.
By Laura Diamond
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The bill moves on to the full Senate, and it’s hard to say what will happen next. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Gov. Nathan Deal have said they’re reluctant to tinker with current immigration law. The Senate bill is similar to House Bill 59, which a committee debated in January but has yet to vote on.
Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, sponsored SB 458 and described it as a simple measure. He said illegal immigrants are taking college slots away from citizens and stressed they won’t be able to legally work in this country after graduation.
“Our colleges and universities are for those that are U.S. citizens and are here legally,” he said.
Loudermilk and others said the University System is violating federal law by admitting these students because attending a public college is a benefit reserved for lawful residents
Federal law does not bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency wrote in 2008 that "... individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public postsecondary institutions."
University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby said they are complying with federal law because illegal immigrants do not receive the public benefit of taxpayer-supported in-state tuition. Instead they are charged out-of-state rates, which are about three times more expensive.
Huckaby said the system’s current policies are working and should be allowed to continue. A new rule bars these students from attending any college that has turned away academically qualified students. This applies to University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State, Georgia Health Sciences and Georgia College & State universities.
Of the system's 318,000 students, about 300 are "undocumented," Huckaby said. Last year, the system had about 500, and the drop shows the new rules are working, he said. Students are "undocumented" if they don't produce documents to show they have a lawful presence, so they may or may not be in the country legally.
“It is a difficult issue," Huckaby said. "We think the policy we have in place is a balanced one.”
Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, asked Huckaby and Technical College Commissioner Ron Jackson if they believed they were violating federal law. They replied no. Carter and Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, were the only members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against the bill.
Debate on the Senate bill Wednesday was not as heated as the testimony in the House.
Three members of the tea party supported the bill, saying the current "amnesty policy" in colleges must end.
Seven people spoke against it, including Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. He said many states are moving in the opposite direction by providing illegal immigrants with greater access to college.
About a dozen states allow these students to pay in-state tuition if they meet certain criteria. Two bar them from public colleges.
By moving forward with the bill, the “Legislature
is acting like bullies,” Gonzalez said.
The bill also would make some changes to House Bill 87, the sweeping law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration that passed last year. It would tweak when people must show "secure and verifiable" forms of identification to get public benefits, including grants, business permits and professional licenses.