Georgia judge weighs in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants

A Fulton County Superior Court judge heard arguments but did not issue a decision Tuesday about a lawsuit seeking in-state college tuition for immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children.

Judge John Goger did not indicate when he would make his decision known after presiding over a hearing that lasted less than an hour. But attorneys in the case said his decision could come at any time.

At issue is a federal program that has granted the 39 plaintiffs in the lawsuit a temporary reprieve from deportation. The federal government says people granted that benefit are legally present in the U.S. Georgia’s in-state tuition policy requires “lawful presence.”

Charles Kuck, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed that out in court, using passages of Georgia’s in-state tuition policy as exhibits.

“We know words have meaning,” Kuck told a nearly packed courtroom before adding the Georgia Board of Regents “cannot ignore reality.”

But state attorneys have filed papers seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, say the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program doesn’t affect Georgia’s tuition policies or give the plaintiffs any rights to in-state tuition.

Russell Willard, senior assistant attorney general, dismissed the program as an “interagency memorandum” issued by the federal government and said the plaintiffs’ argument “doesn’t hold water.”

“It confers no legal status, no rights,” Willard told the court about the deportation deferral program.

But Kuck pointed out the same program grants people eligibility to obtain driver’s licenses and work permits. A list of answers to frequently asked questions on the federal government’s website also says those who have been accepted into the program are “lawfully present” in the U.S.

“The argument that the students are not legally here has no foundation,” Kuck said.

Georgia’s in-state tuition rates are several thousand dollars below out-of-state rates.

Nineteen states have laws or policies allowing people who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates, regardless of their legal status, according to the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant-rights organization.

Florida could become the 20th. Last week, Florida’s Senate passed legislation granting in-state tuition for immigrants without legal status. Also last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, told the state’s colleges that immigrants like the plaintiffs in Georgia’s case can qualify for in-state tuition if they meet Virginia’s residency requirements.