DALTON - Abolishing a program that offers in-state college tuition to high-achieving illegal immigrants would crush students' dreams of succeeding in America and hurt Georgia economically, Hispanic students and their teachers said Tuesday.
The vast majority of speakers who addressed a public comment session at Dalton State College opposed a policy change by the University System Board of Regents that will deny in-state tuition to students who cannot prove they are in this country legally.
Since 1999, the board has been giving presidents of the system's 35 colleges and universities discretion to waive out-of-state tuition for up to 2 percent of each school's freshman class to benefit various groups of students, including athletes, international scholars and illegal immigrants living in Georgia who achieved outstanding grades in high school.
Effective July 1, the system will drop the waiver program for illegals in an effort to comply with the state's new comprehensive immigration reform law.
On Tuesday, students affected by the new policy, their fellow students and their teachers complained the change will force promising students who have lived in Georgia for most of their lives to drop their plans for a college degree.
Enoc Fausto, a nursing student completing his sophomore year at Dalton State, said he can't afford to continue if it's going to cost four times the tuition he has been paying.
"We are people just like you trying to get an education and wanting to contribute to our community," the graduate of Northwest Whitfield High School told a panel of university system staff members conducting the session.
Sean McKenzie, who teaches English as a second language at Northwest Whitfield, said the impact of denying in-state tuition to students (who come to America as children with their parents) will be felt far beyond the students and their families. He said students deprived of reaching their educational potential will be less productive citizens and more likely to become the burden on taxpayers that most concerns Americans about illegal immigration.
"If we do something like this, we create the problem we fear," McKenzie said.
But D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, an organization that supports legislative efforts to reduce illegal immigration, said both federal law and the new state law prohibit extending public benefits to people who can't prove they are legal residents.
King said that every time the state awards a tuition waiver to an illegal immigrant, there's one fewer available to a student who is a legal resident.
"All of us wish we could provide an education to everyone on the planet at a reduced price," he said. "That would be great. But we cannot."
But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said there's nothing in the new state law forcing the regents' hands.
On Tuesday, he read a letter to the board from former state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, a Democrat who worked with Republicans on the immigration bill, citing a section of the legislation that leaves tuition policy for undocumented students up to the board.
"The section only requires the Board of Regents to comply with federal law, which to date has been broad and permissive," the letter states. "I strongly believe in the motivation, mission and integrity of the Board of Regents to make all fundamental decisions regarding access to our university system."
But Regents spokesman John Millsaps said the board developed the new policy based on advice from the system's legal staff that that the new law bars undocumented students from receiving tuition waivers.
He said Tuesday's public comment session, which drew more than 70 people, and three more to follow were not intended to help board members formulate a policy that already has been decided.
"A lot of people might not be aware of this," he said. "It's to bring it to the attention of people who will be affected. Also, it probably wouldn't hurt for us to hear what people think about it."