The Senate Higher Education Committee met on Tuesday to hold a hearing on Senate Bill 44, sponsored by Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta). The bill would allow illegal immigrants covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to pay in-state tuition at most University System colleges and universities (although not the state’s elite universities), along with schools in the state’s Technical College System. There are some 19,000 people in Georgia who have qualified for the DACA program, which requires those applying to show that they have lived in the United States for a certain period of time, are in school or have graduated, have not been convicted of a serious crime, and have paid a $495 filing fee.
Leading off witness testimony was D.A. King of the Dustin Inman Society, who pointed out that the DACA program was instituted unilaterally by President Obama. He urged lawmakers to “let this bill die in committee.” Also speaking against the bill was Phil Kent. Kent said that “we don’t know who these people are,” and maintained that those eligible for the DACA program were using fake documents. He made the point that by allowing Dreamers to enroll at in-state tuition rates, the slots that they take couldn’t be taken by citizens and legal immigrants. Although Kent was appointed by Governor Deal to Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, Kent said his comments were his own, not the board’s.
King and Kent were in the among the few speaking against the bill. Other witnesses, including Matt Hicks, a language arts teacher at Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, favored the bill’s passage. Hicks said that, as a teacher, his challenge is to provide students with hope. He claimed that Senate Bill 44 would provide hope for a new set of students to achieve in the classroom.
The most emotional testimony came from a female who said she took a risk by enrolling in the DACA program. In tears, she said she wanted to touch the hearts of the Senators on the committee. “I was supposed to be in the first generation [of my family] to go to college, but I can’t.” She also threw shade on Phil Kent’s statements, saying that while some people claim that they don’t know who DACA students are, she has a social security number to pay taxes, and has provided additional documentation in order to become qualified for DACA.
After the testimony concluded, Chairman Millar reminded those in attendance the committee would not be holding a vote on SB 44 because the issue of undocumented students paying in-state tuition is under litigation. He said he thought that had a vote been held on Tuesday, it would have failed to pass the committee. Yet, he held out hope it might pass in the future, especially if Georgia followed the lead of two other southern states who have granted in-state tuition benefits to Dreamers, Florida and Texas.
Based on a fact sheet from the University of Texas at Austin, for an undocumented student to qualify for in-state tuition in Texas, he or she must meet the following four criteria:
- Graduate from a public or private high school, or receive a GED, in Texas;
- Reside in Texas for at least the 3 years leading up to high school graduation or receiving a GED;
- Reside in Texas for the 12 consecutive months right before the semester the student is enrolling in college; and
- Provide the institution an affidavit stating that they will file an application to become a U.S. permanent resident as soon as they are eligible to do so.
Placing some reasonable restrictions on who might qualify for in state tuition under the DACA program is worth discussing prior to passage of SB 44, or similar legislation. It’s especially important given the fact that a week from today, US Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting DACA applicants of any age, based on President Obama’s executive action from last November.