Lawmakers introduce bill to help refugees attend Georgia colleges

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Legislation would help refugees qualify for more affordable in-state tuition rates as soon as they settle in the state.

Members of the Georgia House rolled out legislation earlier this month that would boost refugees’ access to public higher education in the state.

House Bill 932 seeks to extend in-state tuition rates to refugee students at the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia as soon as they settle in the state. Under U.S. law, refugees are people who must relocate from their home country because of humanitarian concerns.

HB 932 would similarly extend immediate access to in-state tuition to Afghan citizens who have humanitarian parole, as well as to Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients. These are individuals who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan or Iraq. Benefiting from any of the aforementioned immigration programs means recipients are living in Georgia lawfully. Currently, they must abide by a one-year waiting period after settling in Georgia to establish residency and qualify for the lower in-state tuition rates, which are roughly three times smaller than their out-of-state counterparts.

“They’ve still got to get admitted, but they wouldn’t have to wait a year for the tuition rates to go down,” the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, said. “Why not give them a little bit of a hand up to try to get their schooling started right away so that hopefully they can become a productive member of our state?”

HB 932 is the first piece of legislation to come out of a bipartisan House study committee that met last year to examine workforce development issues among foreign-born Georgians, including barriers to education and professional training.

In Georgia and across the country, the pace of the post-COVID economic recovery has been slowed by the persistent challenge of labor shortages.

“We currently have more jobs in Georgia available than we have people to fill them. A lot of small business owners are telling me, ‘We need access to more labor,’” Cantrell said. “All [refugees] want to do is work. They want to live the American dream.” Easing their access to education could help make that happen.

In a statement, Darlene Lynch, Chair of the Business & Immigration for Georgia (BIG) Partnership, a coalition of Georgia businesses and civic leaders, said she supports HB 932′s passing.

“Georgia businesses across the state are struggling with workforce shortages, and HB 932 is a much-needed tool for building the talent pipeline,” she wrote. “Georgia refugees bring skills and talents to the state from countries around the world. Many of these young people have put their education on hold due to war and conflict, and they’re eager to restart their schooling, build their skills, and get into the workforce to support themselves and their families.”

Although he views the bill, which has yet to be heard in committee, as a “no brainer,” Rep. Cantrell says he has already registered significant pushback. He is not “overconfident” it will pass, in part because of how polarizing discussions on immigration-related issues can be.

“I had a lady come up to me Monday. She looked at my nametag, and then she said, ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy with that bill to give in-state tuition to illegals?’ And I said, ‘No, ma’am, I’m not. My bill doesn’t do anything for illegals.’ So, you know, people don’t want to have an honest dialogue about this issue, and that’s why we can’t get anything done.”

In 2020, Georgia legislators introduced bills that would have extended in-state tuition to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Those bills were unsuccessful.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.