Growing push by lawmakers to help ‘Dreamers’ attend Georgia colleges

State lawmakers from both major political parties have taken turns in recent weeks to craft bills that help immigrants who have been granted a temporary reprieve from deportation — often called “Dreamers” — get an education in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

Those students currently pay out-of-state tuition, which is at least three times higher than the in-state cost to study at University System of Georgia schools. But there are two bills that have been introduced and a third expected Monday that allow “Dreamers” to pay in-state tuition.

The first bill, introduced earlier this month, came from a group of six Democratic lawmakers, led by House Minority Leader Robert Trammell. The second bill was dropped last week by state Rep. David Clark, R-Buford. The third is being led by state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, and the bill's current draft has the support of four co-sponsors, including Rep. Spencer Frye, a Democrat from Athens.

The legislative push comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected in June to rule on the legality of the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA, which started in 2012, grants two-year work permits and deportation deferrals to immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. There are about 21,000 people in the state participating in the program.

Charles Kuck, a local immigration attorney who has represented the interests of DACA participants in various legal disputes, said the bipartisan support stems, in part, from lawmakers eager to help businesses hire more college-educated workers. State leaders repeatedly recite statistics showing a future gap in qualified employees in Georgia.

“There is a broad realization that depriving them of the right to a public education is bad policy, especially as related to these young people who have been educated in public high schools and especially at a time where we’re in desperate need of educated workers in this state,” Kuck said Friday.

Supporters recognize many conservative constituents, and some lawmakers, won’t support the plan.

“Some districts can support it. Some can’t. There’s no hard feelings if you can’t,” said Carpenter.

Clark’s plan, House Bill 920, requires students to have been in a Georgia high school for at least three years to receive the cheaper in-state tuition. He believes his plan will help colleges in rural parts of the state enroll more students. Several South Georgia colleges have had enrollment drops this school year.

“It’s a complicated issue that’s been around for decades, since (Ronald) Reagan was president,” he said Thursday. “I believe in tough immigration enforcement, in enforcing the law, but at the same time, we have all of these kids, these ‘Dreamers’ and DACA kids, who are in no man’s land. And we’re not going to send them back. If they can check off the requirements, they should be able to go to college.”

Neither Clark's bill nor the Democrats' plan, House Bill 896, has yet come up for a vote in the Georgia House or Senate.

The Democratic proposal, like Clark’s plan, has a requirement that students be enrolled in a Georgia school for at least three years. Clark said the difference between the two plans is his proposal includes a provision that students must apply to college within two years after graduating from high school.

Carpenter’s proposal would grant in-state tuition to students who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 12, lived in Georgia at least four years and graduated from a Georgia high school or have a GED.

“It only makes sense to me that they should pay in-state tuition,” Carpenter said. “Why not invest in these students who are working and are already paying taxes?”

Carpenter said he’s planning to include an amendment that would not allow those students in-state tuition if they enroll at a school with 98% of its admissions spots filled. The amendment would mirror a policy enacted by the state’s Board of Regents several years ago that prohibits enrollment to people not lawfully present in the U.S. to a state university that for the past two recent academic years did not admit all “academically qualified applicants.” Those schools have typically been some of the state’s largest and most popular, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Kuck said he’s “heartened” that lawmakers from both major political parties are addressing the issue. He’s unsure, though, about the prospects of any proposal passing this year.

“We’ll see,” he said. “A lot will depend on leadership.”