Undocumented students in Athens left with few in-state college options

By Lauren McDonald

As a senior in high school, Alejandro Galeana-Salinas had the grades and the ambitions to go to a top university in Georgia. But because of his legal residency status, he didn’t have the option to apply.

“It was senior year – my final year – and next year I would be out in the real world, paying bills,” said the recent Cedar Shoals High School graduate. “It was either college or bust.”

Of the approximately 3,000 undocumented students who graduate from Georgia high schools every year, none may receive in-state tuition rates or federal aid to attend college, per state policy.

The University System of Georgia also bans undocumented students from attending five of the top public schools in the state of Georgia, including the University of Georgia, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University.

For undocumented students who would otherwise possess the credentials to attend one of the top five schools and who cannot afford to attend college without federal aid or in-state tuition, the ban restricts their access to most options of higher education in Georgia.

These state policies left Galeana-Salinas feeling apathetic about his future for the first half of his high school career.

Galeana-Salinas said his plans at that time did not extend further than receiving a high school diploma and applying for a position to work in a factory with his parents.

“I thought, ‘There’s no point in me going to college, I’m not going to make it,’” he said. “That was just what I thought. My parents work in factories, and I don’t know anyone who goes to big colleges. The people that I do know go to Athens Tech, so I didn’t see the point.”

In 2010, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents implemented these policies due to the concern that undocumented students would take college seats away from natural-born citizens.

“The purpose of the policy was to mirror state law as passed by the Georgia General Assembly,” said Charlie Sutlive, USG vice chancellor for communications.

In 2010, a USG report also found that, of the 310,000 students enrolled in University System of Georgia institutions, 501 were undocumented.

Federal law entitles unauthorized immigrant children to free kindergarten through twelfth grade education, following the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court Plyler v. Doe decision that struck down a state statute that denied funding.

“The Georgia Constitution creates a clear right to public K-12 education, and the U.S. Constitution requires that this right be afforded to Georgia residents equally, regardless of immigration status,” Sutlive said. “However, that requirement does not extend to public higher education.”

For undocumented students with aspirations to attend college, the ban takes a toll on their self-motivation, according to Lauren Emiko Soltis, an activist who has worked with undocumented students for the last four years.

“So many of my students, if you look at their grades from freshman and sophomore year, they’re taking AP classes, and they’re getting 4.0s,” Soltis said. “Then junior year, their grades start to decline. And that’s a reflection of the fact that they realize that they don’t have any options for college.”

The students give up hope, Soltis said.

“By the time that they’re senior or that they graduate, they have internalized failure in order to protect themselves,” Soltis said. “That’s a terrible thing to do to young people, to essentially close off their options for the rest of their lives, in a society where higher education is absolutely essential to economic mobility.”

Georgia’s policies do not match those of most states, Soltis said.

Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina maintain admissions bans on undocumented students, and Georgia, Arizona and Colorado ban undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. Georgia maintains both policies – the only state to do so.

Galeana-Salinas didn’t realize he had any possible chance to receive an education beyond high school, until he got involved in the undocumented immigrant activist movement.

Attending marches and protests, as well as getting heavily involved with organizations such as the Ambitious for Equal Rights group and the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance, Galeana-Salinas took part in the earliest conversations to found Freedom University.

Founded in Athens in 2011, FU provides an option for undocumented students to continue their education. FU students also take part in the activist movement to lift the bans and increase access to higher education.

“I would go to my high school classes, and I would be like ‘I don’t feel like bubbling in this answer sheet, I do not want to do this homework, I’m sorry but I just don’t care,’” Galeana-Salinas said. “And then I would go to Freedom University, and I was learning about Jim Crow, I was learning about stuff I really loved. These were college-level courses, so we would debate and discuss – things we didn’t do in my high school classes.”

His experience as a student activist at FU altered Galeana-Salinas’ plan.

“In junior year, I started getting focused,” he said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I need to go to college. I can’t work at a factory for the rest of my life, I have more potential than that.’”

But the USG ban left him with few options in-state.

Galeana-Salinas said he knew several undocumented students at Cedar Shoals hindered by the state policy.

“There’s different ways students handle this,” he said. “Some students went and applied to other colleges outside of that spectrum, like to private colleges. A lot of private colleges seem like the answer right now for a lot of us.”

Despite Georgia’s ban, Galeana-Salinas planned to go to college. So he took action, applying to schools out-of-state.

This past year, Galeana-Salinas received a full scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky, where he will begin classes as a psychology major in the fall.

One out of five Freedom University students leave with a full-ride scholarship to an out-of-state school, Soltis said.

“It shows that they are academically qualified, but they have to leave the state of Georgia in order to continue their education,” Soltis said.

But right now, Sutlive said, the Board of Regents does not plan to change the policy. He said the policy continues to achieve its purposes, and USG institutions are adhering to it, including the 25 of the 30 schools that allow undocumented students to attend, if they meet the admissions criteria.

“Given that our policy mirrors state law, until state law changes, the Board is not discussing a change in policy,” Sutlive said.

Even though Galeana-Salinas achieved his goal, he plans to continue with the student activist movement, because he said the fight for education equality for undocumented immigrants has far to go.

“There’s such gray areas when it comes to access to higher education, access to funds, grants and scholarships,” he said. “You just have to keep asking questions.”


Undocumented

Protestors chanted “Undocumented! Unafraid!” on March 6 against the Board of Regents’ 2010 decision to ban undocumented students from enrolling in the top five research institutions in Georgia.

The Economic Justice Coalition and Freedom University both housed in Athens joined forces after the rally for the Lift the Ban movement addressing undocumented students banned from applying to the top five higher education institutions in Georgia.

The Economic Justice Coalition met to discuss joining forces with Freedom University on the Lift the Ban and Raise the Wages movements in Athens on March 21.  Both groups anticipate that joining forces will create a bigger buzz on the two issues affecting Athens. The Executive Director of the Economic Justice Coalition Linda Lloyd plans to use grant money to fund both of the projects.

Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama ban students who cannot prove lawful United States citizenship from enrolling into certain universities within the states. Georgia’s ban prevents undocumented students from enrolling in the state’s top five research colleges that are the University of Georgia, Georgia College and State University, Georgia Institution of Technology, Georgia State University and Georgia Regents University.

Athens Technical College allows undocumented students to enroll. But state laws require undocumented students to pay international tuition fees according to the Vice President of Student Affairs at Athens Technical College, Andrea Daniel.

“If an international student does not provide proof of residency and lawful presence then they must pay four times the tuition rate,” Daniel said.

Representatives from Freedom University and the Economic Justice Coalition hope that the conjunction will create a large enough out cry to persuade the Board of Regents to lift the ban against undocumented students.

The issue of undocumented students ignited with the Jessica Colotl case. Colotl enrolled at Kennesaw State University in 2010 but sparked controversy after a traffic violation arrest. She was arrested for traffic violations and later for making false statements regarding her citizenship status and denied from attending classes during the case. The Economic Justice Coalition worked since 2006 to address local issues of immigrant rights.

The Economic Justice Coalition appointed a Latino Outreach coordinator. They organized an Immigration Rights march with 1,500 people in Athens, Georgia in the spring of 2006 and have worked with the local Latino community ever since.

The coalition organized English as Second Language training classes for day laborers in 2008. The classes helped Latino workers communicate with employers and opened up new job opportunities. The coalition developed a nonprofit business to give African-American and Latino day laborers employment.

Colotl’s case initiated the Georgia legislature to draft House Bill 59 and Senate Bill 458. The bills banned undocumented students from receiving post secondary institutions in the state of Georgia in 2011. The bill required students to pay out-of-state or international tuition rates for schools in the state. The March 6 rally held around the arch fell on the 30th day of Georgia’s legislature session. However, the topic of undocumented students was not considered during this year’s session.

Local school efforts ease the burden some undocumented students face. Athens Technical College supports international students in other ways besides financial hardships attendees face.

“International students have access to a host of support programs that all students use,” Daniel said. “ATC [Athens Technical College] offers free tutoring services, a host of student organizations are available for students to become involved with and Career Services are also available. There is an International Club on campus and this organization often works with Rotaract here at the College on International projects.”

However, the largest problem that enrolled undocumented students face is financial aid. The in-state full-time tuition rate at Athens Technical College is $1,455 compared to the international full-time rate of $5,820. The college addresses issues outside of financial ones due to strict limitations of state laws and the demographics they tend to recruit.

“We really aren’t aware of any issues on campus other than when students state they can’t qualify for financial aid,” Daniel said. “Athens Technical College exists primarily to serve Georgia citizens; therefore, non-resident students may enroll in classes on a space-available basis. They shall not displace students desiring to enroll who are legal, permanent residents of the state.”

The demographics of the college’s students are around three percent Asian and four percent Hispanic-Latino.  However, Freedom University’s demographics are 100-percent undocumented students with most students coming from Latina and Hispanic backgrounds.

Freedom University began in 2011 to provide college-leveled classes to students regardless of citizenship status. Some UGA faculty agreed to volunteer teaching classes in undisclosed basements around Athens. Pam Voekel is one faculty volunteer. She spoke with an Athens-Banner Herald reporter about why she wanted to join the cause.

“We asked them as professors what we could do to help as part of that fight and they said well what you can do is teach a class,” Voekel said. “So what we decided to do is open something called Freedom University here in Athens and Freedom University is open to all students regardless of their immigration status or ability to pay.”

Freedom University provides more than education opportunities for the students that face issues outside of the classroom.

Freedom University officials assist students with filling out deferral forms allowed under the Obama administration in 2012. These deferrals allow students to attend schools under a two-year work visa at affordable cost. States like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina are still hesitant to approve of these deferrals.

Linda Lloyd jumpstarted a partnership with Freedom University on March 21. Lloyd witnessed a movement to fight for undocumented students higher education access rights. She was inspired to help.

“I was so excited about Freedom University and that rally,” Lloyd said. “At least 200 students, they came and I was just impressed with the level of community organizing.”

The partnership between The Economic Justice Coalition and Freedom University centers around a grant the Economic Justice Coalition receives to fund movements like Lift the Ban.

“Right now we are working on the Resist Grant and Resist is a grant we have received since 2003 it was $3,000 but now it’s moving to $4,000 a year and we want to go ahead and do that grant around the UGA Living Wage and Lift the Ban,” Lloyd said.

Undocumented students attend classes today in the basements of Athens, Georgia. The Economic Justice Coalition, Freedom University and other activist groups are determined to see these students attend classes in the classrooms of schools like UGA one day.

Footage of some of the Economic Justice Coalition’s community board meeting on March 21 can be viewed on the video link below.