Brick by brick: “Build the Wall” politics isolate DACA students

Gary “Steve” De La O Flores was 7 years old when he moved to Lawrenceville, Georgia, from El Salvador. New to the U.S., he began public school knowing little to no English. Flores is now a 21-year-old beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and a student at Georgia State’s Dunwoody campus.

Flores currently faces several challenges as a DACA recipient, or Dreamer as they are more commonly referred to, at a public university.

“People think that DACA makes it so easy for us to attend school but it doesn’t. We jump through so many extra hoops than other students [that] it’s honestly a lot harder,” Flores said. “I try not to view it like that because it depresses me. I don’t like to talk about how difficult it is.”

A series of obstacles prevent immigrants from achieving their academic and professional goals, despite temporary protection from the federal government. Some of these challenges include state-mandated policies designed to exclude immigrants from higher education, social stigmas and the upcoming Supreme Court decision to either protect or cut the DACA program.

In 2010, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents adopted Policy 4.1.6, which prohibited any person without permanent citizenship in the U.S. from being qualified for acceptance to public universities in Georgia that had not accepted all academically eligible students in the past two years. 

In addition, the Board of Regents Policy 4.3.4 states that if a student is not lawfully present, any public university that will accept undocumented persons must charge the student out-of-state tuition rates.

The meaning of “lawful presence” is hotly debated in courts and legislatures across the country. Project Director and University Innovation Alliance Fellow Ryan Z. Maltese received his doctorate from Georgia State, where he wrote his dissertation exploring the effect these policies have on DACA and undocumented students.

“The interpretation that I found was that because DACA, the program itself, is renewable, every two years hints [that it’s] temporary unless renewed,” Maltese said. “That was interpreted as to not be sufficient to establish lawful presence for purposes of verification.”

In other words, the policy attempted to make it impossible for Dreamers to get into the top Georgia colleges because they are temporarily protected from deportation but do not meet the requirements for legal status in the U.S. Despite owning all the documentation that would provide residency verification for any other American, such as a Social Security card, driver’s license and work permit, DACA recipients are considered temporary rather than lawfully present.

However, in 2016, Georgia State stopped enforcing Policy 4.1.6 when it determined that the university accepted all academically eligible students in the past two years. This allows undocumented students to apply to Georgia State and study at any of its campuses

Despite this win for Georgia State and DACA students, Dreamers are still required to pay out-of-state tuition and are eligible for very few scholarships. 

I can apply for scholarships, but once they find out you’re not a citizen or a resident of full legal status, they revoke it,” Flores said. “They won’t let you have it, because they’re funded by tax-payer dollars. But we pay taxes, too. I pay taxes, too.”

Flores works an average of 45 hours a week to pay for schooling, setting money aside each week to help fund his transition from the Dunwoody campus to the Downtown campus. According to the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy, DACA recipients like Flores pay about the same tax rates as the rest of middle-class America, averaging at around 8% of their income in state and local taxes, including taxes that fund state scholarships. 

Some scholarships are available for Hispanic and Latino students, including immigrants, such as those provided by the Goizueta Foundation.

Flores is a Goizueta scholarship recipient at Dunwoody. The scholarship makes it possible for him to pay for school, despite working overtime. The foundation also provides Hispanic and Latino students with a cultural and academic community that accepts, educates and supports young adults with similar backgrounds.

At first, I felt inferior. I felt like I wasn’t good enough for society because no one at my high school knew I had DACA. I was the only person I knew at my high school who had DACA,” Flores said. “Goizueta helped me because I met other people in my situation. There were other people in this with me.”

For Flores and other Goizueta scholars at the Dunwoody campus, the program only lasts two years. In order for students to receive their bachelor’s degrees, they must transfer to the Downtown Campus and pay thousands more in tuition. 

Flores recently decided to take this semester off in order to help prepare for costs of his transfer. Without the Goizueta scholarship or eligibility for in-state tuition, the possibility for DACA students like Flores to attend the Downtown campus is slim. 

Students at universities across the state are fighting for DACA recipients to receive in-state tuition. Kiara Williams, a Goizueta scholar at the Downtown campus, advocates for the rights of  Dreamers in Georgia by sending letters to Congress and supporting other Goizueta college cohorts around the state.

“If you have two students equally as smart, but one is undocumented, it’s completely unfair for one to get scholarships and one can’t just based on that one thing,” Williams said. “It’s unfair that they can’t do just as much as the next kid because of legal status. Students think they have to settle for less because they feel they can’t climb that ladder. They want to go to schools, become doctors, engineers, they have the same dreams as everyone else.”

Part of the Goizueta Foundation’s mission to give back to the Hispanic and Latino community is encouraging scholars to volunteer with the Latino Leadership Initiative. Williams mentors DACA and undocumented high school students, helping young adults create a pathway from high school to college. The close relationships between Williams and her students reveals rare insight into the life of an undocumented teenager.

“A lot of students felt comfortable opening up about their situations,” Williams said. “They can apply to certain schools, but the schools they really want to go to are impossible because of their circumstances. They work everyday but can’t pay for out-of-state tuition. It’s a cycle that they are trapped in.

Paying full tuition is not the only roadblock for DACA and undocumented persons. A majority of undocumented students work tirelessly to give back to their families as well.

“There’s so much more than just financial situations that they have to take into consideration before they get a college education,” Williams said. “A lot of schools that do offer scholarships open to students no matter documentation status, but most of them are out of state. Those scholarships can cover full tuition, but they are nowhere near Georgia. So a lot of these students can’t leave because they work to support their families as teenagers.”

The state of Georgia has few institutional aids for undocumented persons. In comparison to other states, Georgia has some of the lowest rates for asylum grants in the country. Asylum seekers also report higher rates of isolation from legal representation and low access to counseling. The need for intervention in the treatment of immigrants throughout Georgia is widely acknowledged by individuals studying immigration law policy. 

“Immigration lawyers are probably needed more now than anytime before in my recent memory,” Ryan Maltese said. “This is a seminal moment in history for your generation to fully realize the impact of what it says about this country and what kind of country you choose to live in.”

Recently, another DACA-friendly community was created at Georgia State’s law school. In early August, the Georgia State University College of Law started the GSU Law Clinic. The new addition is the first immigration law clinic in the state, which allows Georgia State law students to provide legal counsel to individuals whose DACA requests have been revoked or canceled.

Assistant clinical professor Emily Torstveit Ngara was appointed as Director of the Immigration Clinic and will be working closely with law students and clients.

Students and faculty across Georgia are continually fighting for in-state tuition and university eligibility of undocumented persons. As pressure mounts for Dreamer students awaiting the upcoming Supreme Court decision to either keep or replace DACA, supporters of the program are firmly siding with them.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the DACA case as a part of the upcoming term, which begins in October. The ultimate decision regarding the fate of the program is expected to be announced by June 2020.