November 9, 2016 - Atlanta - Immigrant rights activists and faith leaders protested Georgia Board of Regents policies that bar immigrants without legal status from attending some of the state’s top schools and paying in-state tuition rates at its others. The protest was planned by Freedom University, a tuition-free school for immigrants without legal status. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Exclusive: 2 Ga. schools to consider immigrants without legal status

Two of Georgia’s most competitive schools — Georgia State and Augusta universities — will consider admitting immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status, starting in the spring of next year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

That will leave three top Georgia colleges and universities that do not admit such students under a controversial state rule: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia College & State University. Called Policy 4.1.6, the rule has prompted a series disruptive demonstrations and a federal lawsuit.

The decision follows Republican Donald Trump’s stunning upset in this month’s presidential election. Trump is proposing to crack down on illegal immigration by ramping up deportations and canceling an Obama administration program that has provided deportation deferrals and work permits for more than 741,000 immigrants across the nation, including more than 23,000 in Georgia.

The Board of Regents announced the change in a prepared statement sent exclusively to the AJC this weekend, saying it is the result of a review officials began in connection with the court battle. Augusta and Georgia State universities are making the change under the policy based on their most recent admissions data, according to the board, “because they have admitted all academically qualified applicants through general admissions during the last two years.”

Several observers questioned why the change didn’t happen sooner for Augusta and Georgia State, citing how the university system’s policy applies to schools that did not admit all academically qualified applicants “for the two most recent academic years.”

“That is a real problem,” said Victor Viramontes, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing in federal court to reverse the policy.

Asked about this concern, University System spokesman Charles Sutlive referred back to the board’s prepared statement.

“When the data show that an institution has not met those criteria over the last two years, it will be removed from the list in accordance with the policy,” the statement says. “This latest change results from a recent system-wide review of general admissions requirements relating to this policy. We conducted this review in conjunction with recent litigation relating to our admissions policies. In addition to this system-wide review, each of our institutions is expected to monitor their admissions data under this policy on a regular basis.”

The regents adopted their 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 for 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. At the same time, many civil and immigrant rights groups and faith leaders argued in support of their access to the state’s university system. The board ultimately adopted policy 4.1.6 based on a report from the Attorney General’s office that identifies education at competitive state universities as a public benefit.

Teaming up with three plaintiffs and a local immigration law firm, MALDEF filed a federal lawsuit against the policy in September, alleging it is preempted by federal law and is violating Equal Protection rights. The lawsuit will continue because the policy remains in place, though the rule no longer applies to Augusta and Georgia State, Viramontes said.

“This doesn’t cure the illegality,” he said. “The number of schools on the list is shorter, but the problem still remains.”

Chancellor Hank Huckaby declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit, though the Board of Regents has denied MALDEF’s allegations in court papers.

Immigrant rights activists and faith leaders peacefully protested the admissions policy at a Board of Regents meeting the morning after this month’s presidential election. The demonstration was organized by Atlanta-based Freedom University, which is providing tuition-free college preparation for immigrants affected by that policy.

Also in 2010, the regents adopted policy 4.3.4, requiring all universities to verify the “lawful presence” of students seeking in-state tuition. Based on a 2008 state law, that policy has priced out of the state’s university system many immigrants who lack legal status and who are struggling to make ends meet. Charles Kuck, a local immigration attorney, and 10 plaintiffs are suing each of the regents in Fulton County Superior Court, arguing they are mistakenly applying their policy to people who have been approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program Trump has vowed to cancel.

“Whether or not they can go to the school is irrelevant,” Kuck said, referring to Georgia State and Augusta universities, “because they can’t pay the tuition any way.”

Last year, Emory University, a private research university, announced it would offer scholarships to DACA recipients.

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