OPINION: Open door to higher education for immigrants

Bill introduced by Republican legislator would restore in-state tuition for young immigrants

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter reintroduced legislation this session that would allow young immigrants who have been granted a reprieve from deportation to pay in-state tuition at Georgia colleges and universities. The Dalton Republican introduced a similar bill last year, but House Bill 997 stalled in the House Higher Education Committee. He is hoping for better luck with his new bill, House Bill 120, the Georgia Resident In-State Tuition Act.

In a guest column, Munir Meghjani, a civic entrepreneur and a community activist, and Sofia Bork, a second-generation Latina civic leader and advocate, explain why HB 120 is important. Bork received a 2020 Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s 50 Most Influential Latino Leaders award, while Meghjani was a recipient of 40 Under 40 awards from Emory and from the Islamic Speakers Bureau.

By Sofia Bork and Munir Meghjani

The quality of instruction, research, and opportunities at U.S. colleges and universities has brought excellence in education to this country for decades. That excellence has translated into one of the strongest, most diversified economies in the world. The same is true for our state. Georgia is home to some of the best public and private colleges in the nation, and one of the best places to do business.

Here in Georgia, our in-state tuition and scholarship programs make this exceptional education attainable for so many like us — children of immigrants and proud members of Georgia’s diverse community who attended college in our home state. Sofia’s University of North Georgia degree helped teach her how to intentionally contribute to her community through work in the business sector and civic engagement leadership roles that expand opportunities for all Georgians. In the face of adversity, Munir’s parents instilled in him the ineffable value of higher education. Thanks to grants and scholarships, he was able to attend Emory University — one of Georgia’s internationally-recognized institutions. This education fed his insatiable curiosity and fueled his desire to explore, question, and pursue knowledge.

We believe — as do many — that when people don’t have access to knowledge, they don’t have access to power. Knowledge gives us the ability to do what we want in the world and make the communities we love a better place. It creates opportunities and expands our options; this is what allows us to become our best selves.

Unfortunately, Georgia’s growing immigrant community has been locked out of the system that could propel them to reach their full potential, benefiting both their community and our state’s workforce. We have seen scores of family and friends struggle to make ends meet to afford the same education we received.

Expanding higher education opportunities for immigrants would be integral to filling the skills gap, building a prosperous workforce, responding in full to the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensuring sustained economic growth for the state. Georgia is already experiencing a labor shortage in some essential sectors like education, health care, and information technology. Making education attainable and affordable for all Georgians is the first step toward a prepared and competitive global workforce.

Thankfully, State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, has introduced the bipartisan Georgia Resident In-State Tuition Act to open the door now closed to some Georgia students. He’s also opening the door for Georgia’s economy to excel.

Our state is home to more than one million immigrants – more than one tenth of the entire population, including 20,000+ Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, young immigrants who came to the United States as children. Georgia DACA recipients contribute more than $60 million in state and local taxes, and almost $1 billion to our state economy, each year.

Unfortunately, they aren’t afforded in-state tuition prices, even though they’ve called Georgia home nearly their entire lives. Failure to provide tuition equity to Georgia DACA recipients causes us to lose out on an estimated $10 million in additional tax revenue each year.

Georgia’s immigrants make up about 15% of our state’s total workforce, and account for more than 10% of our state’s nurses and 18% of health aides. With expanded access to higher education opportunities that allows the best and brightest to compete for spots at our state school, more Georgia DACA recipients could serve as health care heroes.

Georgia’s immigrants, like our parents, are our neighbors, colleagues, business owners, and friends. Our state has prospered because of our support for entrepreneurship and hard work, regardless of a person’s background. To continue that success, we should apply the same standards to our state education system to grow the workforce available for vital industries. Today, we call on our state lawmakers to unite behind the Georgia Resident In-State Tuition Act to make that education attainable.