November 9, 2016 - 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

Georgia University System reacts sharply to talk of sanctuary campuses

A mushrooming controversy over efforts to defy President-elect Donald Trump and protect immigrants without legal status who are studying on college campuses prompted a sharp reaction from Georgia’s University System Monday.

In a prepared statement sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the system said that while it respects the rights of students, faculty and staff to express their views, “calls for institutions to implement policies and procedures that may violate state and federal laws are unacceptable.”

“The University System of Georgia and its institutions have always abided by the law and will continue to do so,” the statement says. “We expect our institutions to follow the law and cooperate with all federal and state agencies. As public employees we have a duty to uphold the law.”

The statement came in reaction to a recent discussion about making Armstrong State University in Savannah a “sanctuary campus.” According to the campus newspaper, The Inkwell, Faculty Senate President Clifford Padgett “proposed getting the University System of Georgia Faculty Council on board and getting other institutions to come together to do a full resolution.”

“We don’t know how much support there will be from all the other schools,” Padgett said last week, according to the campus newspaper. He added: “I know we would like to put in a united front.”

The term “sanctuary” has been borrowed from municipalities across the nation that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities.” Though the meaning varies widely, it typically refers to cities that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities who are seeking to deport people.

A spokesman for Board of Regents Chairman Kessel Stelling Jr. and Chancellor Hank Huckaby said they were unavailable for comment Monday.

Emory University, a private Atlanta-area school, announced last month it was considering a request to become a “sanctuary campus.” Agnes Scott College President Elizabeth Kiss has said the private Decatur school would continue to support students who have been granted temporary protection from deportation through an Obama administration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The program has granted deportation deferrals and work authorization to 741,000 immigrants across the nation, including 23,177 in Georgia.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs has said he plans to introduce legislation that would block colleges from receiving state funds if they aren’t complying with state and federal law. Ehrhart, the Republican chairman of the House’s higher education financing panel, said, “If you’re picking and choosing which laws you’re going to follow, state dollars aren’t going to follow.” Such a decision could cost private schools tens of millions of dollars in grants, tuition assistance programs and other funding.

Trump has vowed to cancel the DACA program and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Following the Republican’s election, students and faculty from more than 100 universities have called on their administrators to declare themselves sanctuaries or otherwise protect students who are living in the U.S. without permission.

Last week, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pledged to support young immigrants who have been granted DACA and vowed the city would forcefully prosecute any hate crimes targeting newcomers. Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Atlanta-based Freedom University, which provides tuition-free college preparation classes for immigrants without legal status, issued a prepared statement this month, saying the mayor and Emory took a positive step, “but they lack clear commitment to any substantive policy changes.”

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