Senate votes to ban illegal immigrants from Georgia's public colleges

If Senate Bill 458 becomes law, Georgia would join Alabama and South Carolina in barring these students from public colleges. State college and university officials have said the legislation is not necessary because they have already taken steps to ensure that illegal immigrant students are not taking slots away from U.S. citizens and students legally in this country.

Monday's 34-19 vote makes SB 458 the biggest measure concerning illegal immigration to advance in this legislative session. It follows up on House Bill 87, a sweeping piece of legislation that Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law last year and is considered one of the toughest laws passed by a state legislature in recent years targeting illegal immigration. Parts of that law are now being reviewed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All of this underscores just how important a topic illegal immigration has become in Georgia.

Deal and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, have said they have no plans to tinker with HB 87 , noting that some portions of the law have been in effect for just a few months. That spells an uncertain future for SB 458, which calls for some tweaking of that law, as it heads into the House. Another bill targeting illegal immigrants and public colleges, House Bill 59, has yet to pass out of committee.

SB 458 applies to the 35 colleges in the University System of Georgia and the 25 in Technical College System of Georgia.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, said it guarantees that taxpayer-supported colleges only serve citizens and those who are in the country lawfully. He and other supporters said it's wrong for illegal immigrants to take slots at these schools since they can't legally work in the country after graduation.

Loudermilk amended the bill to strike all references to "post-secondary education." As part of that amendment, he addressed the concept of "public benefits"
and clarified that illegal immigrants can't receive them, "regardless of whether such benefit is subsidized by the state or federal funds."

That phrase goes after a key argument long made by University System officials. Chancellor Hank Huckaby and others have said the bill isn't necessary because public colleges already comply with federal law because illegal immigrants do not receive the public benefit of taxpayer-supported in-state tuition. Instead, they are charged out-of-state rates, which are about three times more expensive.

During earlier testimony on the bill, Huckaby said the system’s number of “undocumented” students dropped from about 500 last year to about 300 this year. Students are classified as undocumented if they don't produce documents to show they have a lawful presence. They may or may not be in the country illegally.

He also spoke of a policy that prohibits illegal immigrants from attending any campus that had to turn away academically qualified students. The policy applies to the state's five most competitive colleges, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. Illegal immigrants can attend the system's other 30 colleges provided they pay out-of-state tuition, which is about three times as expensive. College leaders and Senate Democrats said this higher charge covers the cost of instruction.

Loudermilk, though, said that illegal immigrants are illegally receiving a public benefit whether they are paying in-state or out-of-state tuition.

Federal law does not bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency wrote in 2008 that "individual states must decide for themselves whether or not to admit illegal aliens into their public postsecondary institutions."

About a dozen states, including Texas, allow illegal immigrants to attend public colleges and charge them in-state tuition if they meet specific requirements, such as signing an affidavit stating that they plan to file for legal immigration status.

Senate Democrats, in a minority report, wrote that denying illegal immigrant students the chance to further their education "will limit their ability to contribute to Georgia's economy" and "cost Georgia money in the long run."

But Loudermilk said illegal immigrant students won't contribute to the state's economy because they can't legally work in the country. "Their option," he said, "is to take the education they receive and go overseas."

To stop that, he said illegal immigrants "should not receive a publicly funded, taxpayer benefit."

SB 458 also includes some minor changes to HB 87 concerning when people must show "secure and verifiable" forms of identification to get public benefits, including grants, business permits and professional licenses.

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