The first question Stacey Abrams fielded at a Hispanic Heritage Month event was about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But the second involved an immigration-related debate that’s been simmering plenty longer.
The questioner wanted to know whether Abrams would reverse current state policy that restricts “dream kids” -- children whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally – from being eligible for HOPE scholarships at some of the state’s most competitive schools if she was elected governor.
Below is an annotation of how she answered that question at the Brookhaven event, with her responses in italics:
“That was a decision made by the Board of Regents, and one of the jobs of the governor of Georgia is to appoint the Board of Regents.”
Abrams is referring to the 2010 decision by the state Board of Regents to adopt a policy that would block immigrants without legal status from attending the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech and other top schools. Another policy bars them from paying in-state tuition rates at the rest of its colleges.
“That would be my mission, to appoint members of the Board of Regents to make it a body that respects and values every student in our school system.”
The Board of Regents is one of the most influential – and sought after – positions in the state. And while the board’s members work independently of the governor, most often share his viewpoint. Like his predecessors, Gov. Nathan Deal has stocked the board with political allies – and refused to reappoint those he’s sparred with over the years.
“The reality is you don’t have to be documented to be smart. You don’t have to have documentation to be productive. Everybody contributes to the economy and vibrancy of our state, and I have never understood the decision-making that said it was worth it to take away that opportunity from the best and the brightest.”
Here’s the backstory: The regents adopted that policy in 2010 amid a storm of controversy sparked by the arrest of Jessica Colotl earlier that year.
A Mexican native who was brought to the U.S. without authorization as a child, the Lakeside High School graduate was arrested on charges of impeding traffic and driving without a license on the Kennesaw State University campus.
The university system came under intense criticism when it was disclosed that KSU was charging Colotl an in-state tuition rate, which is about three times lower than the out-of-state rate.
In the months following Colotl's arrest, the board received numerous telephone calls and email messages from Georgians who objected to allowing unauthorized immigrants to attend the state's public universities. They were countered by civil rights groups who argued in support of their access to the state’s higher education system.
The board ultimately adopted the policy – known as 4.1.6 – based on a report from the attorney general's office that identifies education at competitive state universities as a public benefit.
“I don’t care where you stand on the political spectrum. If you are a student who has the grades to get into Georgia Tech, the grades to get into UGA, I will be the governor who appoints the Board of Regents that will say you can go if you are willing to work for it. We’ll work with you.”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the GOP nominee for governor, and his allies have a different perspective. During the GOP primary, Kemp advocated for a crackdown on illegal immigration and famously aired a TV ad vowing to “round up criminal illegals” himself. And he argues that the regents’ policies were designed to deter illegal immigration.
He’s tried to highlight Abrams’ stance on “dreamers” and the HOPE scholarship to invigorate his supporters, saying that unlike Abrams he “won't reward illegal behavior with handouts, perks and scholarships as law-abiding Georgians work to make ends meet."