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Immigrants without legal status file suit over Georgia’s tuition policy

A pair of Perimeter College students and a local immigrant rights group on Wednesday filed suit in federal court, reigniting the legal battle over whether people without legal status should be allowed to pay substantially lower in-state college tuition in Georgia.

Lorena Guillen, Karla Lopez and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are alleging the Georgia Board of Regents’ policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and is preempted by federal law. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a local law firm — Horsley Begnaud — are also involved in the case.

“In an era when too many purported leaders maliciously target hardworking immigrants prepared to contribute to our nation’s future success, this Georgia university policy is antithetical to the state’s own interests,” Thomas Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel, said in a prepared statement. “The policy is also unlawful, and this suit promises to reopen the doors of higher education to some of the state’s best and brightest students.”

The Georgia Board of Regents declined to comment on the new suit. But it has previously said its policy was adopted several years ago to mirror a new state law.

“That law required public higher education — including the University System — to ensure that only students who could demonstrate lawful presence were eligible for certain benefits, including in-state tuition,” the board said in a prepared statement issued in February. “That law remains in effect, and, therefore, so will our policy.”

The legal case focuses on students who have been admitted into a controversial Obama administration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The program grants deportation deferrals and work permits to immigrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children, who don’t have felony convictions and who are enrolled in school here. Guillen and Lopez are DACA recipients.

In February, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected a separate appeal aimed at allowing DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition rates. Charles Kuck, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in that case, said Wednesday they would file a new lawsuit soon against the Georgia Board of Regents, hoping to force it to reverse course.

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