ATLANTA (CN) — Members of six immigrant advocacy groups gathered outside a downtown Atlanta church Thursday to raise their voices in opposition to the recent rash of anti-immigration bills proposed in the Georgia state legislature.
Most galling of all, they said, was HB 37, a bill that would eliminate sanctuary campuses in the state and revoke state funding from any private university that refuses to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The bill was approved by the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives in February. It would prohibit private colleges in Georgia from creating "sanctuary policies" or rules preventing administrators and professors from cooperating with law enforcement officers on immigration matters.
Colleges that break the law would be penalized via a loss of state funding, including scholarships, grant and loans for students.
The idea of "sanctuary campuses" is borrowed from "sanctuary cities," places across the country that have pledged not to cooperate with federal authorities who are trying to deport people.
Speakers at Thursday's press conference said the legislation is needlessly divisive.
Stephanie Cho, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said that restricting funding to universities would be tantamount to a "direct attack on Georgia's immigrant communities."
Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, went further, suggesting HB 37 has its roots in Georgia's anti-segregationist Jim Crow past.
"HB 37 is irresponsible public policy," Soltis said. "It echoes punitive state laws meant to maintain educational segregation. HB 37 is a clear parallel to historical policies meant to keep students of color out of higher education and punish universities who seek to protect them."
Freedom University, Soltis claims, is the "one true sanctuary campus" in Georgia. Founded in 2011 in response to a Georgia Board of Regents policy that banned undocumented immigrants from attending the state's public universities and from receiving in-state tuition, Freedom University offers college preparation classes for undocumented students free of charge.
Though Emory University entertained a discussion with its students about becoming a "sanctuary campus" in November of 2016, no school in Georgia has announced that it will change its policies to specifically protect undocumented students.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, the Republican chairman of the legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the sponsor of HB 37, has said that colleges can't pick which laws to follow and which to ignore.
"[They] can't make a decision to effectively teach Lawbreaking 101," he said in a recent interview. "This is not specific to immigration policy or anything else. If they choose not to follow EPA policy or Labor Department policy or the laws of this state or the federal government, then the taxpayers are not going to place any tax money into their scholarships or research."
However, some advocates against the bill argue that colleges should play no role whatsoever in the immigration battle.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations and a former criminal prosecutor, said on Thursday that he believes in enforcing and upholding the law, "but you cannot turn students and administrators into immigration agents. That's not their job. Their job is to teach and to learn. You can do one or the other–you can have people go to school to learn or go to school to be cops."
HB 37 is now headed to the Republican-controlled state Senate for consideration.
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