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Monday, March 5, 2012 - 6:00am

Senate Passes Immigration Bill

Illegal immigrants would be barred from all of the state’s public universities and technical colleges under a bill the state Senate passed Monday. A state House committee tabled a similar measure in January because university officials said it wasn't necessary.

Backers say illegal immigrants shouldn’t have access to any public education benefits. And they say they shouldn’t take classroom slots away from legal residents.

Sen. Barry Loudermilk, a Cassville Republican, is the bill’s sponsor.

He says it clarifies existing state and federal laws that say illegal immigrants can’t receive certain public benefits. He says the bill is needed because:

“At some point, the Board of Regents took it upon themselves to redefine what the term ‘public benefit’ means," he said during floor debate. "They interpret it as, it’s only a public benefit if the student is receiving in-state tuition.”

The University System of Georgia already bans illegal immigrants from the state’s five most selective schools because they often have to turn away applicants.

University System officials say illegal immigrants don’t abuse taxpayer dollars since they pay higher out-of-state tuition rates that cover the cost of education.

They also say the students aren’t taking spots away from legal residents at the state’s less selective universities.

Some opponents also warned of the bill’s unintended consequences. Sen. George Hooks, an Americus Democrat, urged lawmakers to consider history.

“The real danger is the legislative branch of state government overreaching and dictating to Chancellor and the Board of Regents admissions policies,” he said during floor debate.

He said lawmakers once refused to allow University officials to admit African-American students to a summer program. And the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, promptly removed accreditation from the entire university system.

The bill now heads to the House. But a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston said he has reservations about the bill because it re-opens the immigration debate from last year's legislative session. Gov. Nathan Deal has also said it makes sense to wait until Georgia sees the full impact of that legislation, which became law on July 1.

That law virtually outlaws any illegal immigrant from working in Georgia. A federal judge has blocked parts of that bill, and a federal appeals court plans to rule on it after the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in a case against a similar Arizona law.

The bill passed in the Senate would affect about 300 students, or one tenth of one percent, of students enrolled in the University System of Georgia.

At the State House committee meeting in January, several teachers from around the state came to testify, saying the students are here through no fault of their own and shouldn’t be penalized for wanting an education.

One undocumented student, Keish Kim of Roswell, said she was accepted to the state’s top five colleges but couldn’t afford out of state tuition.

“I’m proud to say my parents are taxpayers,” the 20-year-old said.

She said she graduated in 2009 and has struggled during the past two years away from school with depression.

“I was a very hard-working student and I really enjoy and love learning,” she said, fighting back tears.