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Regents discuss student residency
Tuition rate different for illegal immigrants
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A new Board of Regents committee met Monday morning by phone to discuss how to verify residency and tuition for illegal immigrants attending public colleges in Georgia.

The Special Committee on Residency Verification is determining how to check students’ status so they are charged the out-of-state tuition rate if they are not legal residents, but other recently debated topics popped up as well — how to handle students who lie about their status on the application and whether undocumented students should be attending college in the first place.

A group of 15 Republican senators wrote a letter to the regents last week, saying illegal immigrants should be barred from attending colleges at all. Some lawmakers said they would introduce a bill to take action on the issue.

"I’m concerned that we can solve this residency verification problem but don’t necessarily solve the other large problem about the admission of nonresidents," regent Felton Jenkins said. "That’s a big question that somebody needs to answer."

While some committee members questioned whether the decision even falls under their power, others wondered if they should ask the attorney general’s office to review its policy.

"I appreciate that people can say what they wish," Chancellor Erroll Davis said. "We’re pretty comfortable that our legal position is quite correct."

But Cobb County immigration activist D.A. King doesn’t think it is. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society against illegal immigration, said benefits include more than just in-state tuition in schools. It includes any amount of post-secondary education.

"I can’t express my outrage," King said before speaking to the Masonic Lodge in Gainesville on Monday night. "The law is made clear, and it’s fascinating that it keeps happening because of the no illegal immigrant gets left behind agenda of the board. It’s taking classroom seats away from our citizens."

Rather than a question of mere legality, it’s a question of changing policy, regent Larry Walker said.

Most states follow the policy used in Georgia, by which illegal immigrants can attend college but may not receive benefits such as in-state tuition. Other states have passed laws to bar or extend certain services to illegal immigrants.

South Carolina passed a law to bar illegal immigrants from its public colleges. Ten states — including Texas and California — passed laws that give these students in-state tuition.

"I hope they don’t change it. I think what we’re doing is correct now," Gainesville State College President Martha Nesbitt said. "The tuition is already a hardship on these students, and at least they can attend college. For the young lady at Kennesaw, she moved here when she was 10. This is her home; she’s not going anywhere."

Jessica Colotl, a student at Kennesaw State University, entered the country when she was 10 years old and graduated from a metro Atlanta high school. She was charged in-state tuition until she was stopped for a traffic violation, and university officials decided to charge her out-of-state tuition. Regent Dink Nesmith asked Monday about officials overlooking her status, but the committee was not allowed to comment on the specifics of her case.

Defining the problem

Davis plans to meet with college presidents during the first week of July to discuss the residency verification process. The committee charged the colleges to review all 2011 applications in the next 60 days and the status of every enrolled student as soon as possible.

"We need to put all this into perspective. What is our major issue or problem?" Davis said. "Is it undocumented students or students who have changed their in-state status and we’re not aware of that?"

Of the 302,000 college students in the state, there are approximately 12,000 students in Georgia with a Hispanic surname, he said.

"I don’t want to imply for a moment that the bulk are illegal. They’re not," he added. "But if you take that group and then ask what percent of those are undocumented versus what percent of the 290,000 have changed status, it doesn’t take much to outweigh the undocumented students. I don’t have that data but need to figure out how to get that."

Georgia State University President Mark Becker indicated, however, that the comparison is more complicated than that.

"Of the review we’ve done here with a small number of identified undocumented students, we find that a majority of undocumented individuals in the system have Asian or European surnames," he said.

For schools such as Gainesville State, moving between in-state and out-of-state status isn’t a big concern.

"We’re pretty interior in the state," Nesbitt told The Times. "But students might start with us — maybe a student who graduated from Gainesville High School and the parents moved away — and then keep the in-state address. That’s almost impossible to keep up with, and I don’t think enough students do that to be worth the time and money to fix that. We have to start talking about costs and benefits."

Finding a solution

The last question came down to students — undocumented or out-of-state — outright lying on their applications.

"As many hundreds of thousands of students we have in the system, a number give incorrect information," said Burns Newsome, vice chancellor of legal affairs and secretary to the board. "Maybe we should have some system behind that to catch students who might lie about their ability to receive benefits."

Burns introduced a federal database, Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, to verify whether students are in the country illegally. South Carolina uses SAVE sparingly, relying more on documents such as a birth certificates or passports, he said. Burns recommended the committee find more information about the database and look at the cost to institutions, which is 50 cents per verification.

"It’s worth pursuing, but I’m not keen to start with the SAVE system," Becker said. "Submitting documentation would be consistent with how we already process these applications. The high cost could be unnecessary."

Regent Larry Walker also questioned the punishment doled out for lying on applications. Becker and Southern Polytechnic State University President Lisa Rossbacher said they kicked out a couple of students recently who falsified application information, but Walker called for more stringent actions.

"Kicking them out is not sufficient when they committed a crime against the state of Georgia to obtain benefits," he said. "Not only dismiss them but report them to the district attorney. The public would feel good about it, and the applicant would have pause to make false statements if he knew he could get prosecuted."

Regent Jim Jolly told the committee to prepare for another phone meeting by August, but regent Larry Ellis said he wants to move quicker.

"We need to keep pushing and get this resolved as soon as possible," he said. "We need a face-to-face meeting in July, possibly at an institution in Atlanta, and go through their residency verification process to give us a deeper understanding."