BY MONICA VEGA
Daniela Martinez always knew she was undocumented. However, she did not realize the implications or rather the limitations that being undocumented placed on her education until she was in high school. The 19 year old from Norcross, Georgia said, “I noticed it once I saw my childhood friends applying for their dream colleges. Mine was the University of Georgia because I was invited to go there for a Latino leadership camp, and I fell in love with it.”
Despite her excellent grades, Martinez was unable to apply to her dream school due to policies in place in the state of Georgia that ban undocumented students from applying to the top five universities in the state.
Martinez was born in Mexico City and was raised there for the first seven years of her life. Her father left her and her brother in Mexico and travelled to the United States to seek work in order to provide a better standard of living for them. Her mother did the same soon thereafter. When she was seven, her parents decided to bring her and her brother illegally to the United States in order to give them a chance at a better future. Martinez’ trip was long, but she said that she does not remember much of it. To her, all that mattered was that she was finally reunited with her parents.
Coming to a new, strange country was difficult for Martinez. The language barrier was also a major issue for her.
“English was very little known to me. It was my biggest struggle because I would get picked on and used because I did not understand anything,” she said.
Despite the uncertainty Martinez felt and the discouraging barriers placed on her, she excelled in school. Much to her disappointment, her efforts in school were not enough to allow her to pursue her dream of studying business administration and accounting at the University of Georgia. Moreover, she was unable to pursue these dreams at any other Georgia college due to the fact that as an undocumented student, she does not qualify for in-state tuition.
Thousands of undocumented students face this same dilemma each year. Upon graduating from high school, they realize that the rules of the University System of Georgia (USG) work to their disadvantage. It discriminates against them.
The policies which limit the educational possibilities of undocumented students were approved by the Board of Regents of the USG in October 2010. They include Policy 4.1.6, which bans a “person who is not lawfully present in the United States” from applying to the top five universities in Georgia: Georgia College and State University, Georgia Health Sciences University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University and the University of Georgia, Policy 18.104.22.168, which says that students will not be classified as in-state for tuition purposes “unless the student is legally in the state” and Policy 4.3.4, which requires every USG institution to verify the lawful presence of every student who applies for in-state tuition.
Furthermore, although persons under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are considered to be lawfully in the country, they are not granted immunity from these policies. Martinez as well as thousands of other DACA students have been directly affected by this. Martinez has been forced to curtail her educational ambitions because she simply cannot afford to pay the outrageously high cost of out-of-state tuition. This is especially infuriating considering that she has been living in the state of Georgia since the age of seven.
Although these policies have already made it highly unlikely for an undocumented student to be able to afford or even attend college, one legislator took things a step further. In 2011, Representative Tom Rice (R-Norcross) introduced H.B. 59, which sought to prohibit illegal immigrants from enrolling in any of the 35 colleges in the USG and the 25 colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG).
“I feel that students who are here without legal documentation should find opportunities elsewhere to get their education,” Rice was quoted as having said.
He has also said that H.B. 59 guarantees illegal immigrants will not take seats away from those who are here legally. However, this is an illogical observation since undocumented students make up less than one percent of the student body population in the USG. This percentage is, of course, decreasing due to the stringent policies implemented by the Board of Regents.
Currently, only five states have restrictions in place that prevent undocumented students from applying to college. These states are Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. These states contrast unfavorably to the more than a dozen others that grant undocumented students in-state tuition.
For Martinez, and many others, the policy that affects them the most is Policy 22.214.171.124. Despite having lived in the same state almost all of their lives, they are told they are not truly residents of the state which they have called home. They are told to look “elsewhere” to get their education. They are turned away, and their academic efforts are invalidated. All of this through no fault of their own. Ask, “What child at the age of seven is conscious or capable of making the decision to illegally cross a national border?”
Enraged by the policies implemented by the Board of Regents, University of Georgia students took it upon themselves to see them overturned. In the spring of 2013, they formed the Undocumented Student Alliance (USA). Their goal is to promote equality and inclusiveness within our country and communities regardless of a person’s legal status. They hold fundraising events that benefit institutions like Freedom University, which provides tuition-free education, free college application opportunities and scholarship assistance as well as other services to undocumented students banned from public higher education in Georgia. USA wishes to bring awareness and consciousness about the ban throughout the state of Georgia.
Recently, Freedom University and USA joined together in protest against the ban at UGA’s Moore College. Police arrived around 6:30 p.m. after about 50 protesters refused to leave the building. Nine of these students were eventually arrested after refusing orders to vacate the building. This protest coincided with the 54th anniversary of the desegregation of UGA.
Many point out the lie of “desegregation” when there are still students who are outright denied the chance to even apply to UGA based on something that is out of their control. Undocumented is becoming synonymous with uneducated in the state of Georgia.
Prospective good news have surfaced for undocumented students. Recently, Georgia Senator Nan Orrock proposed S.B. 44, which stipulates that noncitizen students granted DACA may be extended the same consideration as United States citizens qualifying for in-state tuition. The bill has not yet been approved, but groups like USA continue to push for its passage.
For now, the thousands of undocumented students in Georgia who have placed their educational aspirations on hold will have to keep waiting. Although they are simply victims of circumstance, they will have to continue to pay the price for actions they did not consciously or willingly take.
Martinez expressed a sentiment that is surely shared by all undocumented students, “It hurts me deep inside knowing I’m discriminated against for my immigration status when it wasn’t even my choice to be here.”
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