Emory could lose state funding if it declares a 'sanctuary campus' to shield immigrants

A powerful Republican lawmaker aims to cut off state funding to Emory University and any other higher education institution that declares it will defy President-elect Donald Trump if he tries to deport immigrants who are illegally in the U.S.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart plans to introduce legislation to block colleges from receiving state funds if they aren't complying with state and federal law in response to the report last week that Emory was weighing whether to declare the school a "sanctuary campus."

"Private institutions can do what they want, but there are consequences to actions. And it can't be an option to choose not to follow state and federal laws," said Ehrhart of Powder Springs, who is chairman of the House's higher education financing subcommittee.

"There’s a raft of state taxpayer dollars for private institutions," he said, "and I’m very sanguine about being able to pass a piece of legislation that says if you’re picking and choosing which laws you’re going to follow, state dollars aren’t going to follow."

Emory University President Claire Sterk wrote in a letter to students last week that administrators are reviewing their request “for a sanctuary campus and ways to protect all members of the Emory community" and said the school would continue to support students, known as “Dreamers,” who were granted a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation by an executive order from President Barack Obama.

“Emory always has been and will continue to be committed to the principles of academic freedom in a community that affirms everyone’s rights to speak, learn, and grow,” the letter read. “While doing so, we will not tolerate bullying, intimidation, or discrimination on any level. Instead, we expect empathy, mutual respect, and courteousness.”

The school said in a statement Tuesday that it "follows all federal laws and policies and will continue to do so." It added that it uses "private, non-governmental resources" to offer scholarships to undocumented students protected by Obama's order.

"We believe there is much we can do at Emory by working together and in partnership with other organizations and our elected officials to help all of our community members flourish," the statement read.

Students and faculty from more than 100 universities have called on their administrators to declare themselves sanctuaries after Trump’s election. The president-elect has vowed to deport the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally, though he’s said he’ll first focus on those with criminal records.

They are borrowing the term from the handful of major cities – and dozens of smaller ones – that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities.” Though the meaning varies widely, it typically signals that the city won’t work with federal immigration authorities to hand over people in the country illegally.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Monday stopped short of declaring Atlanta a "sanctuary city," though he said in a statement that it would be a welcoming one for immigrants and other newcomers.

"Atlanta will not tolerate acts of hatred against our residents and visitors. We will prosecute crimes of this nature to the fullest extent of the law. If you are the victim of a hate crime or intimidation, I urge you to call 911 and report it," he said. "It is the sworn duty of Atlanta Police officers to protect and serve our people regardless of their country of origin, the religion they practice, or the language they speak."

If Emory declares itself a "sanctuary campus" and Ehrhart's plan is adopted, tens of millions of state dollars could be at stake. But as the AJC budget guru James Salzer points out, the fiscal impact would depend on how far Ehrhart goes on his ban of state funding.

State agencies and the University System of Georgia paid Emory facilities $96 million in 2015 for various services, but the biggest part - about $84 million - was spent by the Department of Community Health, which administers the Medicaid program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

In addition, Emory students are eligible for the HOPE scholarship and Tuition Equalization Grants to help them pay for schooling. The two programs provide about $69 million in tuition assistance to students attending private schools in Georgia, with millions of dollars going to Emory students. Emory students are eligible to receive up to $2,174 per semester if they earn the top HOPE scholarship.  And all students get an additional $450 per semester as part of the TEG program, which gives a publicly funded grant to every private college student.

Ehrhart, the longest-serving Republican in the state House, has long been a foil to powerful college presidents. He clashed with Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson last year over his school's handling of the sexual complaint process. And he urged Kennesaw State University's leaders to remove an art exhibit on the AIDS epidemic that he called an "insult for the sake of making a political statement."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.