Hoping for a dream deferred

By Taylor Mullaney

In cities like Atlanta and Chicago, undocumented students and allies are starting to mobilize by organizing protests, walks, and activist groups. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rivas-Triana, taken by Laura Emiko Soltis)
In cities like Atlanta and Chicago undocumented students and their allies are  asking local universities to open their doors to academically qualified undocumented students. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rivas-Triana, taken by Laura Emiko Soltis)

A pop-up screen appeared, and she couldn’t continue the application. Surely, she thought, it was just a glitch in the residency section. She’d call the admissions office immediately and got the issue straightened out. She wanted to apply as early as possible to her dream school, the University of Georgia (UGA).

“Hi,” she said to the admissions officer. “My name is Ashley Rivas-Triana, and I’m a first-year applicant to UGA. I just started my application, and I think something is wrong. I got to the residency section, and it completely shut down on me.”

“Oh, well what’s your residency status?” the admissions officer asked.

“I actually don’t have residency,” Ashley replied. “I’ve gone to school in Georgia since elementary school. But I’m not a U.S. citizen.”

“Oh…we don’t accept people without residency status. I’m sorry.”

The admissions officer wished her luck and hung up. Ashley sat in her bedroom staring blankly at her computer screen, unsure about what to do next.

Until that moment, Ashley Rivas-Triana, now 21, had a clear career path: study hard, excel at Brookwood High School, earn Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, and gain admission to the University of Georgia. Like her, all the top students in her class wanted to join the flagship university’s 35,000 students in Athens. It is, after all, the quintessential American college town, where Bulldog football is religion and bands like R.E.M. and Drive-By Truckers got their start. Throughout the state, license plates, bumper stickers, and flags pay the school homage: “I love my Dawgs,” a bold black “G” encompassed by a red circle, “ALUMNI: The University of Georgia.”

“That’s my school,” Ashley thought. “I’ve gotta go there.”

She was an honors student, maintaining above a 3.5 GPA at Brookwood, and scoring 1950 on the SAT—well into UGA’s middle 50 percent range of 1810-2060. She spoke fluent Spanish and English. She had a keen interest in arts and crafts, one that she developed as a child when she started making her own T-shirts—one with an octopus outline, another with a rap collective she idolized.– That interest later culminated in a passion for printmaking in high school.

Ashley thought those were the qualities UGA wanted in its students. Now, they weren’t enough. A dream more than 10 years in the making was shattered in a three-minute phone call.

Undocumented Students Taking Action

Ashley is one of almost 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high schools in the U.S. each year. Upon graduation, they have starkly different opportunities depending on their home states. On Friday, Oct. 16, the Supreme Court of Georgia will hear oral arguments in the Olvera et al. v. University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents et al., case where 39 undocumented students in Georgia will argue that they should be able to attend and receive in-state tuition in Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

Five states currently prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at state universities: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina. Georgia, however, is unique in that the University System of Georgia Board of Regents policy also bans undocumented students from even attending the state’s top five research institutions: the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Georgia College and State University, and Georgia Regents University.

Consequently, undocumented students in the state of Georgia face three options: apply to private universities, which vary in their willingness to accept undocumented students and rarely provide them with financial aid; attend a far less competitive university or community college in Georgia for full out-of-state tuition; or forgo college altogether. All the while, they must bear in mind that no federal funding will be available to them.

Today, nearly 400,000 undocumented people live in Georgia. Lacking residency status can complicate the life of young people like Ashley who grew up in the United States without a legal status. For many of them, America is all they’ve ever known. Still, they lack the privileges of citizenship including, in some cases, access to higher education.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 which grants a renewable two-year work permit and relief from deportation to undocumented youth who are currently in school, have a GED or a high school degree and arrived in the United States before age 16, among other requirements.

Without fear of deportation, many undocumented students nationwide are now fighting for more educational opportunities and inclusive policies that would allow them access to higher education in public states and universities.

The 39 undocumented students in Olvera argue that they meet the Board of Regents policy 4.1.6 requirement of being “lawfully present” because of DACA. Thus, they say, they deserve access to Georgia’s state universities and in-state tuition.

A Fulton County judge originally dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that holds the government immune from being sued. The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal. Now, the students have a final chance for their case to become part of the Court’s docket in the coming year. The students’ attorney, Charles Kuck, argues that allowing sovereign immunity in this case affords the Board of Regents unchecked power to craft policies now and in the future. He says that while the Georgia courts have upheld sovereign immunity in cases where plaintiffs seek financial damages or legal orders, there is no precedent in cases where plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment–an opinion on a question of law. That, he argues, is what the students ask for, and he says they have a constitutional right “to seek redress of grievances.”

The lawsuit is only the tip of an iceberg in Georgia, where documented and undocumented students alike have become incensed by the Board of Regents policy, and in response, they’re organizing.

“My whole life changed once I received an opportunity to preach for educational equality,” wrote Valentina Garcia, 19, in her college admissions essay. Valentina is another Georgia undocumented student and DACA recipient. “I witnessed other undocumented, Latino students speaking up, rallying, organizing protests, and I felt like I finally belonged.”

Students like Valentina have formed coalitions, participated in sit-ins and protested on UGA’s campus. UGA’s Undocumented Student Alliance consists of documented allies who believe their university should open its doors to academically qualified undocumented students. Georgia State just formed an alliance of its own. Emory University, a prestigious private school in Atlanta, agreed in April to accept undocumented students without discrimination and provide full financial aid to those who qualify.

“This is an issue that affects everyone, not just undocumented students,” says Kevin Ruiz, 19, an active member of the UGA’s Undocumented Student Alliance. “I’m documented, but I grew up Mexican American. It feels like an attack against us.”

Growing Up Undocumented in Georgia

Ashley Rivas-Triana, 21, protests the ban for undocumented students at top Georgia public universities. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rivas-Triana, taken by Laura Emiko Soltis)
Ashley Rivas-Triana, 21, protests Georgia’s decision to ban undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rivas-Triana, taken by Laura Emiko Soltis)

Ashley Rivas-Triana didn’t grow up feeling attacked. Ask her today, and she’ll tell you she felt like a typical American for most of her childhood. Her family came to the U.S. for the first time when she was two years old. They went back to Mexico briefly several years later, but for the most part, her only memories of the country are from what her family tells her. Growing up, she watched American television and had American friends. She became annoyed when her mother wanted her to speak Spanish at home. She attended Hopkins Elementary in Lilburn, Georgia, and Craig Elementary in Lawrenceville, Georgia, along with her three sisters. She always excelled in school. It wasn’t until recent years that she began to identify strongly with her Mexican heritage—particularly after realizing it prohibited her from applying to UGA.

Ask Ashley about the experience of growing up in an immigrant family, and she speaks of her father’s extraordinary work ethic. He was a land surveyor in Mexico and here in the U.S.
“He does a job most people wouldn’t do,” she says.

Ashley emulated her father’s work ethic at Crews Middle School and then at Brookwood High. She dreamed of UGA while her twin sister, Melissa, dreamed of Savannah College of Art and Design. By junior year, Ashley had one foot out the door to Athens. Then came that pop-up window and disappointing phone call. She was, quite literally, blockaded from Georgia’s university system. It was the first time she understood the barriers that came with being undocumented in Georgia, and she didn’t know where to turn. Every day of senior year, she walked by her school’s college wall where students proudly displayed their names alongside the universities they would attend in the fall. She became increasingly disheartened.

By that time, Ashley says, her family had been in an ongoing battle to gain citizenship in the United States, and their case is still not entirely resolved. She says they continuously considered going back to Mexico. During her last years of high school, she’d come home to a different conversation every night: They were staying until her graduation in May, or they were leaving as soon as possible, or she would stay while her parents would return to Mexico. She remembers it as a tumultuous year. Despite the Board of Regents ban, by that point, she wanted to stay in Georgia. It had been home for almost 16 years.

Finding Hope: DACA and Freedom U

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Ashley sat on a panel at Kennesaw State University last year to create awareness about the issues facing undocumented people. She also advocated for more open admissions policies at U.S. colleges and universities. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rivas-Triana, taken by Sarah Chico)

On June 15, 2012, right before Ashley’s senior year of high school, Obama announced DACA. She and her sisters immediately applied. They had to show proof that they had been in the U.S. continuously for a number of years, including the day of the announcement, and they had to provide high school documents. Ashley was the first in her family to receive news that her employment authorization and two-year work permit applications went through. She immediately applied to work at a Mexican restaurant down the road from her house. They hired her, and she has worked 40 hours a week there ever since.

That same summer, Ashley’s mother noticed a program she thought would interest her girls.
“Come here!” she said. “I found this place through Facebook, and I think you’d like it.”

Ashley’s mom learned about Freedom University, an underground school for undocumented students in Atlanta. According to the school’s executive director Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, Freedom U is modeled after the freedom schools of the Civil Rights movement, with a foundation in “education for liberation, not accreditation.” It’s a form of resistance for undocumented students against the Board of Regents policies.

Ashley and two of her sisters applied. Weeks later, they received an email with Freedom U’s location. The girls attended their first Freedom U class in fall of 2012. Almost immediately, Ashley decided she would go for classes every Sunday. Though Freedom U wasn’t very organized just yet, she felt at home.

“There was a mixer the first day, and I kind of kept to myself,” Ashley says, laughing as she thinks back on it. “But it still felt great to be around people like me. I felt like I belonged. I remember everyone was asking questions about DACA, like ‘Have you filled it out yet? How do you do it?’”

Both Ashley and Valentina Garcia say Soltis and other Freedom U professors have pushed them to remain determined in their college search. In the fall of 2014, Soltis took a selected group of students, including Ashley, to visit competitive private schools in the northeast.

“Admission to college should be based solely on academic potential, not social status,” Soltis says.
Since opening in Fall 2011, Freedom U has moved from Athens to Atlanta and widely expanded its curriculum. The change in location made it even more convenient for Ashley, who says she wants more STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses to challenge herself. Other students wanted to learn art, music, debate and public speaking, so Soltis recruited professors to teach those subjects for free.

Through Freedom U, Ashley also helped with a campaign to affect change in the greater Atlanta area. Freedom U students and Freedom at Emory, a documented student group at the university, conceived an eight-month plan with Op-Eds, a panel in November, and meetings in January, which resulted in Emory University announcing on April 2 that it would accept undocumented students without discrimination and provide full need-based aid. Soltis describes it as “a win at the most influential private university” in the state of Georgia. Ashley has decided she’ll be apply there this year.

Georgia in National Context

Dr. Anna Joo Kim, an urban planner, is an assistant professor of housing and community development at Georgia Tech and professor of immigration studies at Freedom U. A California native, Kim wanted to become involved in immigrants’ rights as soon as she moved to Georgia. She has seen firsthand how state policies trickle down to affect her students’ daily lives.

“We’re losing our best and brightest to other colleges and colleges outside of the state,” she says. “They are going to states that have better policies toward immigrants….in Atlanta Metro, people are starting to push back. People are starting to say this is not a nativist city any more. There are many immigrants, there are many children of immigrants, and we need to move the conversation beyond black and white.”

Georgia will lose Valentina this year. She’s headed to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, on a full scholarship after falling in love with the school on her visit through Freedom U last fall.

“No one ever tells you there’s more out there than your own state,” she says. Valentina grew up researching facts about being undocumented and even became YouTube famous for a video she made defending immigrants. But she never knew about resources outside of Georgia. Now, she is convinced her home state will change its policies in her lifetime.

Kim not only thinks Georgia is capable of reform, but also that the state needs to lead the country in a larger movement.

“It’s really good to try to understand not ‘what does this look like in L.A.?’ or ‘what does this look like in New York?’–but how do we understand immigrant integration as a progressive policy movement in places like Atlanta, in states like Georgia?” Kim says. “We are much closer to what it would look like in every other place than L.A. and New York are. If it can happen at the state level in Georgia, then it can also happen at the state level in Tennessee….Georgia needs to move. Georgia needs to move for Alabama to move. Georgia needs to move for Mississippi to move.”

In the meantime, Ashley has decided she cannot wait on Georgia. She has applied to private schools and schools outside the state for the past two years in a row, but she is always denied or accepted without financial aid. This year’s list: Oberlin. Denied. Syracuse. Accepted with no financial aid. Mt. Holyoke. Waitlisted. Oglethorpe. Accepted with no financial aid. It’s a dance of disappointment she’s become accustomed to but hopes not to repeat.

“I got to the point where I was saying, ‘Do I even want to go to college anymore?’” she says.
But invariably, her answer is yes.

Another Year on the Sidelines

On August 12, 2015, in Athens, GA, it’s the third day of Orientation for the 2015-2016 school year at UGA. At Last Resort Grill downtown, a father assures his son that Thanksgiving will be here before they know it. At the university’s Learning Center, an orientation leader teaches a freshman to use ratemyprofessors.com. All over campus, students back from study abroad and summer internships meander around, helping overwhelmed newcomers who stare at campus maps to find their way. It’s the fall ritual in Athens, like in so many college towns across America: 5300 new students embark on a new chapter of their lives. Their parents, grandparents, and siblings tearfully leave them on campus, proud and hopeful for the future.

For the third year in a row, Ashley isn’t joining them. She’s 40 miles away, working her usual shift at Frontera Mex-Mex Grill in Lawrenceville. She knows she’ll face a daunting application process on top of full-time employment and classes at Freedom University again this fall.

“I need to be even more diligent this year,” she says. “For me, applying to college is really, really stressful…but I went K-12 in the Georgia school system with my peers, and they’re all starting their junior year of college now. I want to contribute to society.”

She’s not alone. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Georgia will hear undocumented students’ argument against the Board of Regents. The quiet courtroom will give way to counsel, onlookers, and the media, and the justices will fill their seats. Above them, as always, etched in a marble wall, will be a reminder to disregard public opinion and rule on what is right, etched in Latin: “FIAT JUSTITIA. RUAT CAELUM”
“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”