Georgia senators have given a pass to a bill that aims to keep illegal immigrants out of Georgia's public colleges, despite protests that Gov. Nathan Deal and House leadership did not want to deal with the issue this year.
Senate Bill 458, which passed with 34 votes, includes other minor changes to the sweeping anti-illegal immigrant bill state lawmakers passed last year. But the focus of the more than hourlong debate was a provision that would define postsecondary education as a public benefit, and under the state's new law, keep illegal immigrants out of public colleges.
An amended version of the bill, authored by Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, deleted all references to postsecondary education.
Still, the bill's reference to a federal law that defines public postsecondary education as a benefit not available to illegal immigrants would force the University System of Georgia to change its current admissions policies, Loudermilk said.
Currently, the system admits illegal immigrants as students, but the approximately 300 students in that category pay out-of-state tuition.
The debate was emotional, and behind the scenes, there were signs that it had even divided members of the Republican Party.
Some didn't seem eager to punish illegal immigrants who were brought here at a young age.
President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, even authored an amendment that would exclude from the prohibition children brought to the country illegally when younger than 12.
That amendment never made it into the version senators agreed on.
The bill now goes to the House, where a similar piece of legislation has yet to pass the chamber's Higher Education committee, over which Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, presides.
Attorney General Sam Olens, who was originally given authority to define public benefits in Georgia's immigration law, did not include higher education in a previous list.
If the bill becomes law, Georgia could become one of three states that ban illegal immigrants from public universities and technical colleges.
The bill does not affect illegal immigrants' ability to attend private colleges.
Loudermilk originally postponed a vote on the bill, but brought it back at the last minute Monday afternoon.
Before he did, Sen. Butch Miller, R-Flowery Branch, seemed to be on the side of those, like Williams, who worried the bill unfairly penalized children brought illegally to the United States at a young age. With the bill tabled, Miller thought it would likely come back with an amendment like Williams'.
"We're looking for some, some opportunity to do what would be fair and reasonable to all concerned," Miller said.
But when it didn't, Miller still voted for it, citing a need to follow the law and a responsibility to constituents who had called asking him to support the measure.
"I didn't have any choice but to vote yes," Miller said.