GED provides new opportunity for undocumented Athenians

Students cradling notebooks file into their GED class, greeting one another in Spanish and filling in the side-arm desks from the back.

“I need it for deferred action,” said one student, a 26-year-old Mexican citizen but U.S. resident for the past twelve years. “I would feel free. With it, you don’t have to be scared anymore.”

Half a million people will get their GED in the United States this year, but education is not necessarily the sole focus of these certificates. For students like the 26-year-old woman, the road to a GED can also serve as a pathway around deportation– at least for now.

On June 15th 2012, President Obama signed an executive order allowing undocumented “childhood arrivals” to apply for “deferred action,” granting immunity from deportation for a two-year period as well as employment authorization. The Athens Latino Center for Education and Services (ALCES), an organization dedicated to promoting the interests of the Latino community in Athens, Ga., has run their GED prep program for over a year, but deferred action revitalized it. Executive director Jeff Zimmerman said registration rose after the announcement, and the center expanded its program in August.

“The deferred action is really big. Being able to legally participate in our economy is a really big deal,” Zimmerman said. “Our GED program, given that possibility, would have a really impact because it opens so many doors for people– brand new jobs they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise, being able to be here without fear of being deported for two years.”

To be eligible for deferred action consideration by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, residents must have arrived in the United States prior to their sixteenth birthday, have continuously resided in the United States for the last five years, have a clean criminal record and either be an honorably discharged veteran, currently in school, have graduated from a high school or awarded a GED. This last provision is where ALCES steps in.

“Our [GED prep] course is pretty intensive, they try to get them through as quickly as possible while still capturing all the necessary content,” Zimmerman said. “We have some pretty focused students.”

The GED is a high school equivalency certificate, open to anyone at least sixteen years of age and not enrolled in a regular high school. The GED is contingent on the cumulative scores of five individual tests. Incentive exists to pass these tests the first time due to the burdens of cost (in the state of Georgia, fees total to $95) and time (low scores can result in a three or six month wait period before individuals can retake the GED tests). Reports from national and local news sources show rising demand for preparation courses from undocumented would-be test-takers, but students struggle to afford private options, barred from free, state-provided classes due to their legal status.

Not every student participating in the GED courses at ALCES does so with aims of deferred action.

“Some want to do it for education purposes or job opportunities,” Zimmerman said.

But he added that at least half, maybe more, are taking these classes in hopes of fulfilling the educational requirement of the policy.

But those who do, according to Jennifer Blalock, an ALCES volunteer who works the front desk, come from all corners of Georgia and even as far as South Carolina to sit in the classrooms at ALCES. She attributes this not only to the classes themselves, but to the role ALCES plays in the Latino community as well.

“We’re established from within the Latino community,” she said, pointing out the multitude of community services ALCES offers.

According to former ALCES executive director Jamie Umaña, 380 students are enrolled in GED classes at the center, a number only limited by classroom space. Blalock says demand is so high that ALCES keeps a waiting list. For the undocumented, the possibility of deferred action makes the GED process all worthwhile.

“I cannot imagine living as an undocumented immigrant. The fear that comes with that of using basic resources that you and I would take for granted every day is crazy,” Zimmerman said. “Being scared of going to the doctor…every traffic stop becomes a terrifying experience– if you’re undocumented you’re un-licenseable.”

Students at the classes agreed. The 26-year-old Mexican immigrant said her life would “change in many ways” if she received deferred action. For her, the most important thing to come with deferred action would be a license, which would enable mobility without fear and the opportunity for a better job.

Another undocumented woman, also from Mexico, agreed. “It’s hard to get a job when you can’t drive or apply with your real name,” she said. The 19-year-old has lived in the U.S. since she was four. Beyond the end, she enjoys the means, saying the classes are good and “getting to learn more about the subjects” is interesting.

Although none of the students knew people awarded deferred action, all still have hope. Hope for a future, according to students, they didn’t have prior to the executive order.

“I dropped out of high school because what’s the point when you can’t go to college or get a job,” said the 19-year-old, now attending GED prep courses but still far from prepared to take the actual test. In the meantime, Zimmerman said the courses build a resource without legal bounds: confidence.

“When people succeed, they get empowered and that can’t really be understated.”

ALCES offers GED classes specializing in language arts, writing, reading, social studies, science and math, either in two-hour increments Monday through Thursday or in a six hour Saturday class. Course duration ranges from three to six months, at $50 a month. The center registers new students every week. ALCES is also always in great need of volunteers to help operate all its many community programs.

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