ATLANTA -- If Silvia Carrera had grown up in one of the states that grants in-state college tuition rates to certain immigrants, she might be on the way to a Georgia college now.
Instead, the young woman from Roswell High School’s class of 2013 is heading to Columbia Basin College in Washington state.
More than a year after graduating, “I have the great opportunity to go to college, but not here, not in my community,” Carrera told a state Senate panel Tuesday, her voice breaking into sobs. “I can only say it would have been a better opportunity to have it here.”
Carrera is a so-called “Dreamer” -- someone who was brought to the United States illegally as children and has been granted a federal stay from deportation. According to Atlanta’s Latin American Association, some 19,000 Georgians have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status.
More than a dozen Dreamers arrived to testify before the state Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday with tales of qualifying for higher education, but not for the more affordable in-state tuition rate. Some have sought deals or scholarships elsewhere, and others are not sure what to do.
All of them arrived at the Capitol to testify in support of Senate Bill 44, which would grant Dreamers in-state tuition rates to Georgia’s public technical colleges and universities. That would override a decision by the University System of Georgia to consider Dreamers out-of-state students.
It’s a familiar issue to Raymond Partolan, an alumnus of Bibb County’s Central High School and a member of the Mercer University class of 2015. A Dreamer, he has been a resident of the United States since the age of 1.
It is “fundamentally unfair” that nearly lifelong residents of Georgia should have to pay out-of-state tuition rates, he said.
Though a scholarship paid Partolan’s university bills, he could not have known that when he was applying to schools and wondering how he would pay. He’s one of a few dozen people who signed onto a lawsuit against the university system demanding they reverse their tuition decision on Dreamers. A Fulton County judge threw out the case, but an appeal is pending.
“This legislation is very important to the immigrant community, because out-of-state tuition is just so much higher than in-state,” he said.
For example, full-time tuition at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville is nearly $3,500 for in-state students who entered college in the fall 2014, according to the University System of Georgia. It’s nearly $12,700 for out-of state students. At Middle Georgia State College, the figures are about $1,500 and $5,500 respectively.
Of the students who would be eligible, “many have been residents here since 2 or 3 years of age,” said the author of Senate Bill 44, state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.
Of the 20 states that granted Dreamers in-state tuition rates as of last summer, most passed laws to do so. But in others, the university systems took independent action, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Four states besides Georgia ban in-state tuition rates to unauthorized immigrant students. Five states grant Dreamers some financial assistance. In Virginia, the state Legislature and the attorney general are sparring over the question. The remaining states or college systems have yet to take any action.
“I’m not saying this bill will ever pass, but I can promise you will not pass in its current form,” state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, the committee’s chairman, told the packed room at the Capitol.
“Where it’s being done, there’s been five or six criteria laid out,” he said. The criteria vary from state to state but can include a student promising to apply for legal status as soon as possible, for example. Orrock’s draft lacks any extra criteria.
There’s also the pending lawsuit and the uncertainty around what courts ultimately will decide, Millar said. He scheduled the hearing with the warning that he would call no vote.
“The easy thing would to do here would have been just to have a vote and kill the bill,” said Millar, but he said his committee has empathy for young people.
“I do commend the senator for bringing the bill,” Millar said, “because it calls attention to an issue and these are the important things that we ought to be dealing with versus, quite frankly, some of the silliness we deal with down here.”
Partolan said he thinks it’s difficult to predict what the Legislature might do, given that the lawsuit is pending.
“I thought it was gracious for Sen. Millar to have a hearing so the committee can at least hear personal stories,” Partolan said.
After the hearing, Orrock offered encouragement to the young people who mugged with her for numerous group photos. She told them a hearing is at least a start.
“We’re on the right side of history,” Orrock said. “And we will prevail.”
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.