ATLANTA — A Georgia legislative committee on Monday voted to approve a bill that would bar illegal immigrants from state colleges, universities and technical schools.
The House Judiciary Non-Civil committee passed an amended version of the bill that passed the Senate chamber earlier this month. It now goes to the House Rules Committee, which will decide whether to bring it up for debate before the full House.
The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, said the bill is meant in part to clarify the intent of a 2006 law that he says should have been interpreted as prohibiting state colleges and universities from accepting illegal immigrants. It also makes some changes to identification requirements for applicants for public benefits laid out by a law enacted last year to crack down on illegal immigration in the state.
The committee heard from both supporters and opponents of the bill during nearly two hours of discussion. Almost all of the discussion centered on the education provisions of the proposal. Supporters of the bill say it's necessary to preserve state-funded education for citizens and legal residents. Opponents say the bill unfairly denies motivated illegal immigrant students the opportunity to further their education.
Illegal immigrants already are effectively barred from the most competitive state schools because of a Board of Regents policy created in 2010 that prohibits any institution that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from accepting illegal immigrants. That includes the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Georgia Health Sciences University and Georgia College & State University. Illegal immigrants may still be admitted to any other state college or university but must pay out-of-state tuition.
University system Chancellor Hank Huckaby told committee members he believes that policy is adequate and asked that it be allowed to work. He offered nearly identical testimony before a Senate committee last month and before another House committee that was considering a similar bill.
"We believe this policy assures undocumented students do not receive a public benefit since they must pay out of state tuition and that no undocumented student will be taking a seat in a class away from a Georgia student, since our selective institutions are not allowed to admit undocumented students," University system Chancellor Hank Huckaby said.
The university system has said it does not believe illegal immigrants receive a public benefit via postsecondary education because they must pay out-of-state tuition.
Loudermilk said that even if illegal immigrants are covering the direct cost of their education by paying out-of-state tuition, they also benefit from the buildings, computer systems and other capital investments that are funded by tax dollars.
"Postsecondary education is a public benefit whether it is directly subsidized or not," he said.
Democratic lawmakers raised some concerns about the bill. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, suggested it was possible that people who are in the country legally but don't have their paperwork because of bureaucratic problems might be excluded. And Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, said she was concerned that illegal immigrant students might be discouraged from completing high school if they're not allowed to go to state colleges.
Only South Carolina currently prohibits state colleges and universities from admitting illegal immigrants. A section of Alabama's tough new law targeting illegal immigration that would have done the same has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
The version of the bill that passed the full Senate earlier this month did not explicitly define postsecondary education as a public benefit, though the sponsors said that was implied through references to a section of federal law. But the House committee approved an amendment Monday that specifically adds postsecondary education to a list of public benefits that illegal immigrants are ineligble to receive.
The bill also includes some changes to the identification requirements from last year's law for applicants for public benefits, which include food stamps and professional licenses. Notably, it says applicants for public benefits can submit required paperwork up to nine months before the application deadline and that U.S. citizens don't have to resubmit "secure and verifiable" identification documents to renew a benefit with the same agency. It also excludes foreign passports from a list of acceptable identification documents unless valid federal immigration paperwork is also submitted.