ATLANTA -- The Georgia Senate voted Monday to approve a bill aimed at barring illegal immigrant students from state colleges, universities and technical schools.
Senate Bill 458, approved by a 34-to-19 vote, also would tweak other state laws dealing with illegal immigration. During nearly two hours of discussion, lawmakers focused mostly on illegal immigrants' access to higher education before voting on the bill.
The bill now heads to the House. A House committee held a hearing in January on a bill that would bar illegal immigrants from state higher education institutions, but its members have not voted on that bill.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, said it has stirred up a lot of controversy, but he said it simply aims to correct some unintended consequences and to clarify the legislative intent of previously passed laws.
"This bill is not about education," Loudermilk said, adding that it's about taxpayer-funded benefits going to people who are in the country illegally. He pointed out that illegal immigrants can still attend private institutions in the state.
Democrats released a minority report on the bill Monday calling the legislation unnecessary, fundamentally unfair and economically shortsighted.
"Increasing the number of college graduates who earn higher wages generates higher sales, property, and income taxes," Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta wrote in the report. "Denying these students access to higher education will cost Georgia money in the long-term."
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, said federal law bars illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits, including postsecondary education, unless a state passes a law to the contrary. Georgia has no such law, he said.
The new bill would clarify the intent of a law he sponsored in 2006 that he said should have been interpreted as prohibiting state colleges and universities from accepting illegal immigrants, he said.
The original version of the bill that passed the Senate Monday included postsecondary education on a list identifying public benefits, but an amendment proposed by Loudermilk and adopted before the vote on the bill removed postsecondary education from that list. Supporters of the bill said it doesn't need to be on the list because it's included in the federal definition of public benefits.
But the state university system does not believe illegal immigrants receive a public benefit via postsecondary education because they must pay out-of-state tuition.
"We have interpreted that to mean the benefit is in-state tuition because that is subsidized by the taxpayers," university system spokesman John Millsaps said.
Loudermilk said in a statement after the vote that the university system Board of Regents is incorrectly interpreting federal policy by allowing illegal immigrants to attend state colleges and universities.
"The key word to remember in this legislation is `illegal,"' he said. "I truly do feel compassion for anyone who will be impacted by this legislation, and I applaud anyone who wants to work towards a college degree. Nevertheless, this should not be an exception to following the due process of law."
Only South Carolina currently prohibits state colleges and universities from admitting illegal immigrants. A section of Alabama's tough new law targeting illegal immigration that would have done the same has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
"Why do we want to put Georgia in the posture of standing in the schoolhouse door?" asked Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, drawing a parallel to the desegregation of public colleges in the 1960s.
Illegal immigrants already are effectively barred from the most competitive state schools because of a Board of Regents policy created in 2010 that prohibits any institution that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from accepting illegal immigrants.
That includes the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Georgia Health Sciences University and Georgia College & State University. Illegal immigrants may still be admitted to any other state college or university but must pay out-of-state tuition.
University system Chancellor Hank Huckaby has told Senate and House committees that he does not believe such legislation is necessary and that current board policy is sufficient.
The Senate bill also seeks to adjust some identification requirements from last year's law for applicants for public benefits, which include food stamps and professional licenses.
Applicants must provide a "secure and verifiable" document proving their legal presence in the country. Some agencies -- including Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office, which handles many professional licenses -- expressed concern the requirement would cause extra work for his staff that could delay issuing or renewing licenses.
The new legislation says applicants may submit their documents within nine months of the application deadline, as long as the documents are still valid when the public benefit is administered and for the duration of the benefit. The bill also says U.S. citizens renewing an application for a public benefit do not need to resubmit documents each time they apply to renew a benefit with the same agency. Applicants who are not U.S. citizens would have to submit the docuements each time they apply.
Last year's law required the state attorney general to create a list of acceptable, secure and verifiable documents. Attorney General Sam Olens' list included passports issued by a foreign government. Under the new legislation, foreign passports would only be acceptable if submitted with valid federal immigration paperwork saying the person is in the country legally.