A Republican state senator on Monday said he would introduce legislation clarifying that immigrants living without legal status in Georgia would not be eligible to pay in-state college tuition.
State Sen. Joshua McKoon of Columbus predicted his bill could make two pending lawsuits that focus on this issue go away. Immigrants who have been granted temporary protection from deportation through an Obama administration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, are arguing in both state and federal courts that they should be allowed to pay the in-state rates. Those rates are three times lower than the out-of-state rates.
At issue is a 2008 state law that says noncitizens cannot pay the in-state rates unless they are “legally in this state.” A Board of Regents tuition policy closely tracks that law. Assisted by local immigration attorneys and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the plaintiffs in the lawsuits are pointing to federal records that say DACA recipients are lawfully present in the U.S. McKoon said his bill would change the law to say only those with “legal status” in the U.S. could pay in-state tuition.
“I think it is important for the state statutory code to reflect clearly — so there is no confusion about it — that in-state tuition is to be reserved for people with legal status in the country,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If a person from Chattanooga, Tenn., or Auburn, Ala., or Tallahassee, Fla., has to pay out-of-state tuition, then certainly I think someone who has got no legal status to be in the country should have to pay out-of-state tuition.”
In 2015, the Board of Regents voted to allow residents in neighboring states to pay in-state tuition at 11 state schools. The initiative — which now applies to 10 schools following the consolidation of two institutions — is aimed at helping South Georgia colleges that have experienced declining enrollments.
McKoon continued: “There is no question in my mind that the Legislature, when it adopted these laws, was intending to reserve these benefits — or privileges — to people with lawful status.”
The MALDEF lawsuit says the Board of Regents in-state tuition policy violates the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection rights and is preempted by federal law, allegations the regents deny. The suit also points out the plaintiffs have worked in Georgia and paid sales and other taxes here. Last year, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute — a left-leaning think tank — issued a report that says barring such students from in-state tuition rates costs Georgia about $10 million in lost tax revenue each year by decreasing access to higher education and better-paying jobs.
“It sounds like a concession from the state that they are uncomfortable with what their state law says and what our lawsuit is alleging,” Victor Viramontes, a MALDEF attorney, said of McKoon’s plans. “If they were confident in their position, they wouldn’t go around changing their state law.”