Georgia State will now consider accepting undocumented students at its Atlanta campus, and some advocates for immigrants’ rights are hailing the news as a triumph over a policy that’s been called discriminatory and segregating.
But, after years of protesting and civil unrest by activists, the state’s higher education oversight arm, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents (BOR), hasn’t actually budged on its stance on the admission of students living without legal status in the country.
Georgia State used to be among five colleges which, due to a BOR policy created in 2010, barred undocumented immigrants from enrolling. But after two years of admitting every academically qualified applicant, the school — as well as Augusta University — was removed from that list. The University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College and State University will continue to uphold the ban, since they’ve turned away some students whose grades were up to par.
But Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, which educates and advocates for undocumented students, said she doesn’t think this change came about merely because of Georgia State’s recent acceptance habits. She suspects that, because of Georgia State’s recent consolidation with Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), the system aimed to keep reeling in tuition cash from the undocumented students who were already attending Perimeter schools.
“GPC has the largest population of undocumented students of any Georgia university, and the [BOR] realizes that kicking out undocumented students would not be a financially good idea for them because they’re bringing in out-of-state tuition,” she said.
So next on the docket for undocumented students’ advocates is a fight to earn in-state status for migrants enrolling. This is a contentious matter — the debate has prompted three lawsuit filings against USG officials — because no one seems able to nail down exactly what it mean to be undocumented. The term applies to everyone from illegal immigrants to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
Supporters of undocumented people’s rights assert that many of these immigrants are, in fact, legally present in the country, since they pay taxes and hold state driver’s licenses, work permits, and temporary social security cards. “In 2012, undocumented immigrants contributed $352 million in state taxes alone,” Emiko Soltis said.
Sanford Posner, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta, said he thinks yielding in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented students, especially those receiving DACA aid, should be a no-brainer.
“If they meet the qualifications for in-state tuition, they should get in-state tuition, the DACA students especially,” he said. “These are people brought into the United States with no say in the matter. It’s fundamentally unfair because we’re turning away people who would be productive members of society, and having a college education is one of the keys to success in these modern times.”
But, Posner said, America’s next presidential administration could be a serious thorn in the side of many immigrants, legal or otherwise. He said President Barack Obama’s executive order to create the DACA program could quickly be swept away once President-elect Donald Trump takes office.
Georgia State accepting undocumented students, Posner said, will be a “meaningless exercise” if people affected by the change are liable to be deported once it takes effect in the spring semester.
In an attempt to address some students’ fear of the Trump team to come, some Georgia State teachers and staff are offering outlets to discuss and vent about the upcoming cabinet. The school’s women’s, gender, and sexuality studies (WGSS) department created a bulletin board for students to post their concerns, which is now full of anti-Trump messages.
Emory University recently announced it might become a sanctuary campus, meaning the school wouldn’t contribute to the singling-out of undocumented students who could be targeted by Trump’s immigration policies. However, the college could be threatened with a loss of state funding if it decides to defy ambitions set out by the next cabinet.
In a similar vein, Georgia State professor Tiffany King is looking into ways to make the school — or at least its WGSS department — comparably helpful to students worried about the nation’s next steps. “Personally, I feel compelled not to cooperate with federal immigration enforcers or even the police if they need me to identify my [undocumented] students,” she said.
“Every sanctuary can look different, depending on your university’s relationship to state funding, so people will have to be innovative and creative in responding [to potential amendments],” King said.
Posner said defiant campuses likely won’t face closure, but they might need to seek out alternative sources of cash flow to make up for potential funds lost. “[Those colleges] will eliminate their abilities to access federal [and state] funding for programs and research,” he said. “The schools would have to turn to other funding sources and might be unable to makeup for the shortfall.
Meantime, activists for the undocumented will continue to march and protest in an effort to maintain and bolster their rights.