ATLANTA — Discussion on a bill that might keep illegal immigrants from attending Georgia's colleges has been put off, for now.
Following an emotional hearing Tuesday that was more than two hours long, Rep. Carl Rogers of Gainesville, chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, suspended debate of House Bill 59. He said committee members needed more time to hear from constituents.
Rogers, a Republican, said the bill likely would be back on the table for discussion in two to three weeks. He said he had received some 1,000 emails and letters about the bill, which would essentially deem enrollment at a state college, technical school or university a "public benefit."
Under Georgia's new immigration law, any person receiving a public benefit in the state must provide a document showing his or her presence in the country is legal and sign an affidavit swearing the same.
Students enrolling in private colleges would not be affected by the law.
A large crowd attended the hearing, many wearing a red felt "U" pinned to their shirts to signify undocumented students. Several spoke to committee members, calling the bill "hateful" and "backward."
Leaders of Georgia's technical colleges and universities have asked lawmakers for them time to allow their own policies to work. All currently charge out-of-state-tuition to students who cannot prove their legal status.
Out-of-state tuition for students who cannot prove their legal status is nearly three times the rate charged to Georgia students, which a top-ranking university official said "more than covers the cost of their education."
Students who cannot prove their legal status also are banned from the state's top five research institutions, per a new policy implemented last summer by the Board of Regents.
Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, told lawmakers less than 1 percent of students in Georgia's colleges are illegal immigrants.
Another rough estimate put the number of illegal immigrants in Georgia's colleges at fewer than 400. Last year, that number was estimated at more than 500.
But the author of the bill, Rep. Tom Rice, R-Peachtree Corners, said he wants the bill to become law in case leadership in either the technical college or university systems changes and policy changes with it. He said he does not want illegal immigrants to take up space in classes that might keep legal residents out.
University and technical college system officials both said legal students are given preference.
"I feel that students who are here without legal documentation should find opportunities elsewhere to get their education ..." Rice told committee members Tuesday.
"You have to agree that there's a much more favorable chance for the intents of the law to be honored if, in fact, the law is in (Georgia) code."
As Rice defended the bill Tuesday, D.A. King, a longtime activist against illegal immigration, sat at his side.
King told committee members the policy was drafted after he filed complaints that illegal immigrants were being charged in-state tuition.
King's comments to the committee prompted Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta, to question King about his own legal issues. Long referred to King's arrest in the late 1970s for illegal gambling, a charge to which King pleaded guilty. King responded that his run-in with the law proved that "enforcement works."
"I'll put up odds 1,000 to 1 that I'll never take another bet," King said.
The same bill came up for debate last year, passing the same committee it went before Tuesday. The bill never made it past the powerful Rules Committee, however, which determines what bills make it for a vote on the House floor.
A number of college students, teachers and retired military professionals testified against the bill.
Tom Preston, who said he was a teacher at Gainesville State College, tried to appeal to Republicans' distaste of bigger government. He said a state with fewer educated residents likely would have a smaller tax base and that more regulation might not be the solution. Preston asked lawmakers to make a decision that would spend less taxpayer money.
"Sometimes government is the problem," he said. "To enact some of the enforcements, that is going to make government bigger, government more intrusive into our lives."
Others argued that the bill punishes students whose parents brought them to the country illegally.
Tonna Harris-Bosselman, a former professor at Gainesville State, told the committee that she was "appalled that there's a bill on the table that would deny education."
"They're not asking to commit crimes or to stay on the streets. They're asking to stay in school," Bosselman said. "I implore you to lead, but don't lead backward back to segregation, back to Jim Crow, back to ignorance. Lead forward."
Following Bosselman's remarks, Rogers said the bill would be on hold "until further notice."
In a later interview, he said the bill might come back up for consideration in two to three weeks.
Rogers was not chairman of the committee last year.
Having seen countless Latinos graduate from Johnson and Gainesville high schools, Rogers said he's not sure what he thinks of the bill.
"I understand how people feel, especially the citizens of the state of Georgia, but there again we do have a large population of foreign people and illegals ... ones that were brought here as children," Rogers said. "It's a very emotional issue."
Those whom Rogers has watched graduate from high school make debating the issue all the more complex.
"They're bettering themselves, and they ought to have an opportunity," he said.
He said he hopes to be able to work with the university and technical college systems to see if their current policies will remedy issues with illegal immigrants. That, Rogers, said would be his preference.
"But it's not my choice," he said.
As chairman, Rogers would not vote on the bill in the committee unless there is a tie.