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Ga. Immigrant Students Continue Tuition Fight Despite Ruling

Students from Freedom University protested two state policies at a Board of Regents meeting last fall.
Students from Freedom University protested two state policies at a Board of Regents meeting last fall.
Credit Emiko Soltis, Freedom University

Georgia’s university system got a win from the state Supreme Court Monday, when justices decided the Board of Regents can’t be sued by a group of students. The high court ruled the Board of Regents is immune from lawsuits.

But the students vowed to continue to fight. They’re a group of students who have graduated from Georgia high schools and have temporary protection from deportation, also known as “DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students.”

Some of them even say a Regents’ policy that bans them from the state’s top colleges is a subtle form of racism.

Drawing Inspiration

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of students gathers at a secret location in Atlanta to audition for the “Freedom University Singers.” Freedom University is an underground school for students who want to go to college.

“We get our inspiration from the ‘freedom schools’ of the black freedom movement and Freedom Summer, 1964,” says the school’s executive director, Emiko Soltis.

Soltis says, like the Freedom Schools of the 1960s, Freedom University teaches students how to effectively organize and protest — with lessons in civil disobedience. It also provides tuition-free college-level classes.

The school was founded in 2011 after the Board of Regents banned students with temporary resident status from its top five colleges and universities, even if they graduated from a Georgia high school. Soltis says, in doing so, the Regents reverted to old Southern segregation laws.

“When we look at the exact same universities that are banning undocumented students — yes, it’s only five,” she says. “But those same universities also banned black students in 1960, and that is absolutely not a coincidence.”

Civil rights leaders have also chimed in when universities have restricted access for students with temporary resident status. Georgia Congressman John Lewis addressed the issue when he spoke at Emory University’s 2014 graduation ceremony.

“It doesn’t make sense that we live in a country, we live in a society, where more than 12 million people are living in the shadows, living in fear,” Lewis said. “That is not right. That is not fair. That is not just. And you must get in the way and find a way to make a way out of no way.”

After his speech, Emory, which is a private university, changed its tuition policy for students with temporary resident status so more could attend.

A Southern Problem?

Georgia’s public universities aren’t the only ones in the South that restrict admissions for students with temporary resident status. South Carolina and Alabama don’t allow such students to attend any state colleges. To Emiko Soltis, that smacks of the Old South, where discrimination was written into law.

“‘Undocumented’ is racial code,” she says. “None of these bans would’ve passed if they’d said, ‘Let’s ban brown students.'”

The University System of Georgia declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying it is following state law to make sure only those “lawfully present” get in-state benefits. (See the full statement below.)

Freedom University student Melissa Rivas-Triana says she is lawfully present.

“I was able to apply and get my work permit and get a [driver’s] license,” she says. “So, it’s like I have two forms of ID now that I can use.”

Rivas-Triana is what’s known as a “DACA student.” She can’t be deported right now under federal orders. The interpretation of what it means to be “lawfully present” is at the heart of the lawsuit the students are waging against the state.

Finding Alternatives

Salvador Alvarado doesn’t see the tuition restrictions as racist or a form of segregation. He’s also a Freedom University student, and says his main gripe is that the policy that keeps him from getting a college education at a public school in Georgia just doesn’t make sense.

“You’re limiting he or she to a high school education, where you later on expect that person to get a job and contribute to society,” he says. “But how is that person able to contribute when he has a low-income job or is limited to what he can do based on his education?”

Alvarado has a college scholarship, but might go out of state because top schools like the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State can’t consider him.

Students like him could attend other Georgia public colleges but they would have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is often 3-4 times higher.

That’s why organizers at Freedom University say the school is needed. Students don’t get college credit for courses, but, organizers say, it opens doors for Georgia’s students with temporary resident status to universities and scholarships in other states.

Full statement from Georgia’s Board of Regents:

“Our 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.  That law remains in effect, and, therefore, so will our policy.”