Two-thirds of Georgians want to bar illegal immigrants from attending the University of Georgia and other public colleges, even if they pay out-of-state tuition, according to results from a recent poll.
Sixty-seven percent of people polled last week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership favor a law requiring proof of legal residency to attend a Georgia college or university, while 22 percent opposed such a law and 11 percent were undecided.
Illegal immigrant students are now allowed to attend college if they pay out-of-state tuition, but state lawmakers have said they will introduce a bill to change that policy early next year.
The poll results came as no surprise to D.A. King, founder of the anti-illegal immigrant Dustin Inman Society.
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“We have a finite amount of classroom seats,” King said. “It’s always been a mystery to me for seats to go to people who are deportable at any time and cannot work upon graduation when unemployment is 10 percent.”
Illegal immigrants who go to college have usually grown up in Georgia and are among the best and the brightest, said Jerry Gonzalez, director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. They should be allowed to continue their education, he said.
“We’re holding the child accountable for a situation their parents put them in,” he said.
Gonzalez chalked up the poll numbers to anger over the federal government’s failure to enforce or reform immigration laws. But he said he believes the U.S. Senate is poised to pass a bill allowing illegal immigrants who have no criminal record and complete two years of college or serve in the military to become citizens.
“I think the public is frustrated with the fact that our congressional leaders have not taken action in reforming the immigration system that we have,” he said.
The issue came to the forefront in May, when police pulled over a Kennesaw State University student for a traffic violation and discovered that her parents had illegally brought her from Mexico to the U.S. as a child. Jessica Colotl was paying in-state tuition at Kennesaw State, an open-enrollment school, but when administrators discovered she was not a legal resident, they began charging her out-of-state tuition. Immigration officials gave her a year to finish her degree before she is deported.
After the Colotl case brought public attention, a University System of Georgia investigation found a few dozen other illegal immigrants attending public colleges and universities. A Board of Regents committee is meeting Tuesday and is expected to recommend more thorough residency checks, but illegal immigrants will still be admitted unless the state Legislature changes the law, regents spokesman John Millsaps said. The full board is scheduled to take action in October.
The Legislature exempted the Board of Regents from a 2006 ban on illegal immigrants receiving many government services.
“Current law allows undocumented students to apply to college and be accepted,” Millsaps said. “It just doesn’t allow them to pay in-state tuition. That’s the current law, and that’s what we have to operate under.”
Changing the law enjoys broad support from almost every demographic group. Seventy-five percent of men, 61 percent of women, 46 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Republicans, 77 percent of political independents, 71 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks favor changing it. The rest were opposed or undecided
Nidya Gonzalez, 33, a Realtor from Winder, said she usually votes Republican, but thinks the party makes too big a deal out of immigration for political reasons. Gonzalez said she immigrated legally as a teenager and is now a U.S. citizen.
“I love this country very much, and I adopted it as my own,” she said. “I pursued my education, and I would like them to have that same chance.”
But it sometimes seems like the government cares more about foreigners than citizens, said Fredrick Williams, 50, of Elberton.
“I don’t mean to sound racist, but they can go to school in Mexico,” Williams said. “They can go to school in China, or Iraq or Afghanistan, or wherever they’re from.”
Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Roy Barnes and Republican Nathan Deal, say they support barring illegal immigrants from attending public colleges and universities.
Illegal immigrants take spots that rightly belong to Georgians, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
“Generally, I do not believe that a child should be punished for the crimes of the parents; but, I agree that we all have a duty and an obligation to obey the law, and we should obey the law,” Barnes said in a written statement. “Therefore, I am not in favor of illegal immigrants attending Georgia’s public colleges and universities.”