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These state bills could help immigrant students afford college
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University of North Georgia students walk across the Gainesville campus Wednesday, March 11, 2020. In Georgia, some legislators are pushing for undocumented immigrant students to be given access to in-state tuition rates at Georgia’s public colleges. - photo by Scott Rogers

Some legislators are pushing for undocumented immigrant students to be given access to in-state tuition rates at Georgia’s public colleges.

Several bills on the issue are proposed in the Georgia House of Representatives. The bills, which have been assigned to the House’s higher education committee, include some restrictions such as the student having graduated from a Georgia high school.

About 21,000 people in Georgia participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. DACA gives young immigrants a work permit and protection from deportation, and status must be renewed every two years. 

To be eligible for DACA, people had to have arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and lived in the country for at least five years as of June 2012. They need to be in high school, a high school graduate or a veteran and have no felony convictions. Initial DACA applications are no longer being accepted, although participants can reapply.

The legislation could cut tuition bills by more than half for Georgia’s undocumented students and those with DACA status.

Diana Vela, a Gainesville High School graduate with DACA status, is attending Oglethorpe University. She has lived in Georgia since she was 4 years old, but when she started college at the University of North Georgia in 2014, she had to pay out-of-state tuition rates due to her immigration status.

Vela said she and other immigrant students want to get an education to give back to the communities they are from, so facing barriers to that education can be frustrating.

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University of North Georgia students walk along the sidewalks of the Gainesville campus Wednesday, March 11, 2020. In Georgia, some legislators are pushing for undocumented immigrant students to be given access to in-state tuition rates at Georgia’s public colleges. - photo by Scott Rogers

“There’s this sense and feeling that Georgia is home, so it is upsetting to know that a place that not just myself but so many have invested so much of their time, so much of their efforts, and so much of this pride to be from Georgia … sometimes due to politics, we get overlooked or denied these opportunities when at the end of the day, we’re not wishing any harm,” Vela said. “We’re wanting to contribute.”

Vela said she supports the Georgia Resident In-State Tuition Act, which would offer immigrant students in-state tuition rates if they have graduated from a Georgia high school or have a Georgia GED, have lived in the state for at least four years, were in the country by their 12th birthday and are under the age of 30. 

House Bill 920 would require the student to have attended a Georgia school for at least three years before then graduating from an in-state high school. The student would need to apply for college within two years of graduating high school. 

House Bill 896 has slightly different requirements. Students would need to have attended a Georgia high school for at least three years, earned a state-accredited high school diploma or GED, and be enrolled as a current or entering student at a Georgia college on or after July 1, 2021. Undocumented students would need to file an affidavit with their college stating that they have filed an application to legalize their immigration status or will file an application as

soon as they are eligible to do so.

“Denying access to education does not reflect who we are as Georgians, and legislation like this helps move our state forward,” Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said in a statement in support of HB 896. “Not only would in-state tuition benefit these young people, but it would also ensure our state has a strong and educated workforce to meet our needs.”

Vela said with the current suspension of new DACA applications, more students are graduating high school unsure of their next steps.

“I can’t begin to imagine the level of confusion and sadness and maybe even hurt with an undocumented status, not knowing exactly what you can do, especially if you’re wanting to stay in Georgia,” she said. “It’s pretty difficult to be able to access higher education with no permanent status.”

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, introduced the Georgia Resident In-State Tuition Act. He said it “comes down to fairness,” plus increasing access to higher education drives economic development.

“We’ve spent the money to educate them. These kids work in our businesses. They go to church with me. They’ve played on my kids’ football teams and teams that I’ve coached,” Carpenter said. “To me, it just only makes sense that we allow these kids to continue to educate themselves.”

Carpenter’s district includes Dalton State College, where out-of-state tuition is triple the in-state fee. A UNG student on Gainesville’s campus taking 15 credit hours will pay about $2,797 this spring if they are in-state. If they pay out-of-state tuition, 15 credit hours will cost them $9,877.

Undocumented students cannot get other financial aid like Pell grants, so the price quickly adds up, Carpenter said.

“It literally prices them out of the education market,” Carpenter said. 

UNG referred a request for comment to the University System of Georgia, which according to a spokesman does not comment on pending litigation.

The legislation could help students for generations to come, especially in light of the uncertain future of some immigration policies, Vela said. 

“We’re thankful for the opportunities that have been given to us, but we want to keep a lookout also for those who come after us, and definitely the ones who don’t have DACA status,” Vela said. “... Action needs to be taken. No more false promises, no more using us as an upper hand just to get votes and to get publicity, but for action to really start being put in full force.” 

State Reps. Timothy Barr and Matt Dubnik said they had not yet reviewed the bills and declined to comment. Other legislators did not respond to requests for comment.