Immigrant students get a hearing, but no legislative vote

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More than a dozen undocumented immigrants made an emotional plea at a Senate committee meeting Tuesday for a bill that would result in lower tuition rates for them to attend one of Georgia’s public colleges.

While they got a polite and sympathetic hearing from the senators, the students most likely won’t get a break on tuition because the bill is not expected to get a vote in the Senate’s Higher Education Committee.

“If I took a vote today, this bill would not pass,” said Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), the committee chairman. “I feel pretty comfortable in telling you that. I can promise you, it will not pass in its present form.”

The bill in question, SB 44, would allow people who reside legally in Georgia under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to pay the in-state tuition rate to attend a public college. There are about 19,000 people in Georgia who have DACA status.

The current Board of Regents policy is that undocumented students can only attend a University System institution where there are open slots for admission; these students are also required to pay out-of-state tuition rates, which are up to three times higher than in-state tuition.

In past years, the Republican-controlled General Assembly would not have even held a committee hearing on a bill like SB 44, much less pass it, so Millar’s decision to hold a hearing represents a small step forward on the issue.

“In the future, I promise you, we will do this again,” Millar said, referring to additional hearings on SB 44.

Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta), the sponsor of SB 44, said the state’s current tuition policy for undocumented immigrants drives promising students away from Georgia.

“We lose people who would be otherwise devoted to Georgia, part of our economy,” Orrock said. “We want to encourage and remove barriers to students living in-state.”

“Education is linked to economic development,” said Jerry Gonzalez of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO). “We need a skilled workforce in Georgia.”

The students who testified Tuesday said they had all been brought to the U.S. by their families as young children. Most of them said they either were attending college in other states or were not going to college at all because of the high tuition rates they would be required to pay

“There’s really no difference between us and students who are citizens,” said Orlando Rodriguez, a graduate of Sprayberry High School in Cobb County. “We both came here without having any say in it.”

“I have been accepted at Berea College in Kentucky,” said Alejandro Salinas of Athens, a Cedar Shoals High School graduate. “It’s not Athens, which is where I wanted to stay. What else would have been better than to do it here?”

There was opposition to the bill from D. A. King and Phil Kent, two unregistered lobbyists who are anti-immigration activists.

Kent compared immigrants to “terrorists” and accused them of trying to take class slots at public colleges “that are going to be stolen from citizens and legal immigrants.”

“Sometimes, you forget we are in a war on terror,” Kent told the committee members.

King said that if legislators allowed undocumented immigrants to pay the in-state tuition rates, they would then come back and demand driver’s licenses and legal status.

“I guarantee you, that will not serve as a deterrent to future illegal immigration,” King contended.

© 2015 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: DACA , Fran Millar , in-state tuition , Nan Orrock , undocumented students , University System