More than 30 undocumented immigrant students on Monday staged classroom sit-ins at the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, three public colleges that ban undocumented students from admission.
The protests ended early Tuesday morning after the arrest of 14 students. Eight students remain in jail, according to local activists.
The protest was organized by Atlanta’s Freedom University, “a modern-day freedom school” that provides college-level classes, scholarship assistance, and leadership development to undocumented students in Georgia. Intentionally launched yesterday on the 56th anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom University students were protesting the Georgia Board of Regents’ Policy 4.1.6 and Policy 4.3.4, which were implemented in 2011 and banned undocumented students from the top five public universities in Georgia. The policies also prohibited them from qualifying for in-state tuition.
Georgia is one of three states, along with Alabama and South Carolina, to institute an admissions ban against undocumented students in public higher education. Georgia is the only state to ban students both from select universities and from in-state tuition.
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, told Rewire that a bulk of the approximately 50 students who attend Freedom University every semester have been in the United States since they were children, many of them attending kindergarten through 12th grade in Georgia public schools.
“They spend their whole lives going to public schools in Georgia and then when it’s time to go to college, they’re banned,” Soltis said. “It’s heart wrenching for them to be stuck and not be able to go to college. We’re punishing young people and impacting their health and economic mobility for the rest of their lives.”
The undocumented students sat in classrooms wearing hand-painted monarch butterfly wings, which were intended to symbolize the history of migration. They were joined in protest by documented students from seven universities in Georgia, including students at the three colleges where the sit-ins occurred and students from Spelman College and Morehouse College, among others.
While southern states are seeing more undocumented residents, advocates say the undocumented population in Georgia is relatively low, making such harsh policies seem unnecessary. Soltis said it’s important to consider the history of the area.
“The only states banning undocumented students from higher education are in the Deep South, which brings us to the conversation of race. ‘Undocumented’ is racial code. It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of undocumented people are people of color. It’s not a coincidence that these bans were placed after the economic downturn. Immigrants were an easy scapegoat,” she said. “Addressing economic issues that impact everyone is harder than just blaming the problem on a racial group or using xenophobia as a way of creating fear and perpetuating this idea that people of color aren’t entitled to the same rights as others, including the right to an education. Race plays a huge part.”
Charles Sutlive, vice chancellor for communications and government affairs for the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, said in a statement to Rewire that the board respects students’ right to free speech, but the policy banning undocumented students from higher education was adopted 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,” Sutlive told Rewire.
Because many Freedom University students have been in the United States since they were children, they are eligible for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to receive a renewable two-year work permit, a driver’s license, and exemption from deportation for two years.
Soltis said that without access to higher education, DACA does little for undocumented students.
“Yes, students in Georgia can get a license and they can technically work, but in respect to education, we’ve essentially created an entire [population] of young people who can legally drive to low-wage jobs while being denied an education and a right to vote,” she said. “We’ve seen this before and it’s called Jim Crow. It’s an exploitable labor force. Your race and immigration status should not impact your trajectory. This is contrary to all of the values this country espouses about immigrants.”
Jacqueline Delgadillo, a 20-year-old Freedom University student who participated in Monday’s protest at Georgia State University, spoke to Rewire while standing outside of Fulton County Jail awaiting the release of the remaining eight students arrested during the sit-ins.
Delgadillo, who attended Georgia public schools for the entirety of kindergarten through 12th grade, said it was important to her to make others aware that people like her are banned from pursuing higher education.
“I don’t think people in other parts of the country are aware of these policies that create a new form of segregation in the south,” Delgadillo said. “We’ve been here our whole lives, our parents pay taxes, but we don’t have access to the same things, not even something as basic as education.”