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Education leaders say bill barring illegal immigrants from college is unnecessary
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Some education leaders say legislation aimed to effectively prohibit illegal immigrants from attending the state's public colleges and universities is overkill, and an issue they already are addressing.

The Georgia State Senate passed SB 458 Monday. If it passes the House and is signed by the governor, Georgia would be the third state to pass such legislation after Alabama and South Carolina.

"I think we have an excellent solution in place now for a very difficult situation," said Philip Wilheit Sr., a member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. "That is, (undocumented students) can attend 30 out of 35 of our universities and pay out-of-state tuition. I think it's a workable solution to the problem."

Under the current system, undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition if accepted, and the system is "very careful" about monitoring the priority placed on citizens' ability to get into school.

During a 2011 committee hearing, Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who voted "yes" on the bill, told of cases where Georgia residents were not getting classes because illegal immigrants filled those spaces. He specifically mentioned a Gainesville State College student who was unable to get the classes he wanted.

Class registration is generally first come, first serve.

Balfour did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

"With all due respect to Sen. Balfour, who is a friend of mine, I have not seen any evidence of that," Wilheit said. "We're very careful about that. That's why we have the 30 (schools available), because they're access institutions and we would not be blocking anyone - any Georgia citizen. That is our intent, and if there is conclusive evidence that a certain university is doing that, then I think I would like to know about it."

Although the bill is making headlines, the number of undocumented students currently in state colleges is minuscule. The University System enrolls more than 318,000 students, 360 of them "undocumented," about 0.11 percent.

The Technical College System of Georgia had more than 103,000 students; 0.19 percent of them are undocumented.
Mike Light, executive director of communications for the TCSG, said nonresident students are mostly international program students here on student visas.

"For the most part, we feel we have very few nonresident, undocumented aliens in our system," Light said.

The technical system requires those students to pay four times the tuition rate, if space is available. It is a "safeguard" to ensure illegal immigrants do not fill classes over state residents.

"It's not our intent, nor is it our desire to train anyone who is here illegally for a job that could be held by a Georgian," Light said. "So we feel like we have those safeguards in place."

At the high school level, students and guidance counselors are keeping a close eye on the bill.

"It's just so hard," said Kay Holleman, head of college counseling and guidance for Gainesville High School. "The kids, the majority of them, have not lived in Mexico at all, or they were 2 or 3 when they came over."

She said some parents may take their kids back to their native countries for college if the bill passes.

"That's something that some of them are considering," she said.

Her advice to any student worried about the pending legislation is to "hold tight, don't worry."

"Once (the House votes), then we'll know what we're up against," she said.

The bill passed the Senate 34 to 19. Some hope it dies in the House.

"I hope the bill doesn't pass," Wilheit said. "I know we have illegals. Some of them are here, it's not really their fault they're here, but they are. The best thing I feel like we can do is provide for them an education where they can be productive in our society."

The bill will not prevent undocumented students from attending private colleges.

"It is so sad because we have such bright kids and they are going to be doctors and lawyers and business people and teachers," Holleman said. "I just don't know what we'll do (if the bill passes)."

A similar bill in the House failed to make it to Crossover Day in time to be considered.

SB 458 had its first reading Wednesday in the House.