In a move that will have a small immediate practical impact, but large potential political implications, Georgia’s Board of Regents voted Wednesday to bar illegal immigrants from attending the state’s most selective public universities.
The decision came over the objections of some students and advocates, who argued the regents should not take a stand that necessarily limits educational opportunities. At the same time, the board’s vote came amid growing public outcry from those who argued -- against the evidence, critics say -- that illegal immigrants were overrunning the system, draining taxpayer dollars and squeezing out qualified Georgians who might otherwise have been admitted to the state’s most competitive colleges.
Presentations made to the board suggested “undocumented” students make up a small portion of the system’s student population. System officials used the term "undocumented," saying they can count only the number of students who do not have up-to-date paperwork -- not necessarily the number who came to the country illegally or have overstayed visas.
According to the state’s count as of September, 501 undocumented students are enrolled in the 35 four-year and two-year colleges in the University System of Georgia, making up less than 1 percent of the 310,000 students in the system. In keeping with existing state policy, the undocumented students are all already paying out-of-state tuition, system officials said.
“Clearly the system is not being swamped by these students by any stretch of the imagination,” said John Millsaps, spokesman for the regents.
Even so, the regents’ decision was designed in part to put to rest the notion that academically qualified Georgians might be losing coveted slots to those in the country illegally. To that end, the system will begin in fall 2011 to prohibit the admission of undocumented students on campuses where academically qualified students have been turned away for two consecutive years. That cohort would immediately include the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia and Georgia College & State University.
According to the system’s count, 29 undocumented students are currently enrolled at the five immediately impacted campuses. Those students will be permitted to continue their studies, Millsaps said.
At the University of Georgia, the state flagship, just two of the nearly 35,000 students are recorded as undocumented.
“There’s not much we can say except we’ll abide by the policy,” said Tom Jackson, vice president for public affairs at Georgia.
Of the 16 members of the 18-member board present for Wednesday's vote, just two regents -- Richard L. Tucker and Felton Jenkins, the board’s vice chair -- voted against the measure that would bar admittance for undocumented students.
The vote aligns Georgia with South Carolina as just the second state to ban illegal immigrants from four-year public institutions, although South Carolina’s more far-reaching policy bans the students from all such colleges. Alabama also has a policy prohibiting illegal immigrants from enrolling at two-year institutions.
In the lead-up to the regents’ vote, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Georgia Teachers of English as a Second Language submitted letters in opposition.
In prepared remarks Wednesday, James Jolly, a member of the board, noted what a delicate issue the regents were confronting.
“Clearly, this is a topic that is very polarizing about which reasonable people can disagree,” a copy of his remarks stated.
And disagree they do. The firestorm over immigration nationally is being played out in higher education across the country, where even a local case involving a single undocumented student has caused impassioned debate on both sides.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Wednesday that the regents’ decision placed political concerns above their broader obligations to the public.
“I think it is a significant departure from the mission of what the Board of Regents is supposed to uphold, which is promote access to higher education,” he said. “I think it was politically motivated, and they caved in to xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment that is very prevalent in the state of Georgia.”