Immigrants without legal status have demonstrated for years against Georgia rules that bar them from attending some of the state’s top universities and paying in-state tuition at others.
They’ve sued Georgia’s Board of Regents, lobbied at the state Capitol and staged acts of civil disobedience, seeking to reverse the state’s policies. All without success.
But they are now cheering a victory outside of the state’s University System, a win they hope will boost their momentum.
Emory University, a private research university, recently announced it would offer scholarships to students who qualify for a special reprieve from deportation through the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Emory’s move is significant because DACA recipients don’t qualify for federal student aid.
There are still many unanswered questions, including where the money will come from, how much will be available for each student to cover Emory’s steep annual tuition —- now at $44,400 —- and how many students the university expects to apply for it. The university, however, said it would use “private, nongovernmental resources” to aid the students, starting with the class entering this fall.
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With its announcement, Emory joins the ranks of many other private colleges and universities that admit DACA recipients and give them financial aid, including Dartmouth College, the University of Notre Dame and Tufts University.
Valentina Garcia, a native of Uruguay who graduated last year from Berkmar High School in Lilburn, applauded Emory’s move, saying she hopes the university will become a trendsetter in the South. She is among 19,883 immigrants living in Georgia who have been accepted into the DACA program, which is aimed at young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, attend school here and have no felony convictions.
Garcia said she would have applied to the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech if the state didn’t bar students like her from attending them. She is instead enrolling this fall at Dartmouth, where she wants to study medicine. She said her younger brother, a Berkmar freshman who plans to apply for DACA, could benefit from Emory’s decision.
“This gives us hope, ” said Garcia, who joined a coalition of Emory students and others in pushing for the change at the university. “This is an amazing win for the undocumented student movement.”
Supporters of Emory’s decision say Georgia’s efforts to restrict access to its state universities are self-defeating. They point out that state taxpayers have invested in students such as Garcia by giving them a public school education. They also say such students could contribute more to Georgia’s economy if they were able to attend colleges here.
Shawn Hanley, the vice chairman of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board, said he doesn’t agree with Emory’s decision and wants to learn more about what it intends to do. Noting Emory is a private institution, Hanley said he is particularly concerned about granting immigrants without legal status access to taxpayer-supported universities.
“I certainly don’t like to see undocumented (people) get rewarded in any way within the private or public arena, ” said Hanley, whose board is aimed at cracking down on government officials who don’t comply with Georgia’s immigration laws. “It is not something I would support if I was sitting on the Emory board or if I was an active influencer within the Emory alumni community.”
Georgia’s University System prevents DACA recipients from attending any institution that has not enrolled all of its academically qualified applicants for the previous two years. That prohibition now applies to the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State, Georgia Regents and Georgia College and State universities. The system also bars these students from paying in-state tuition, which is about three times lower than the out-of-state rate.
A spokesman for the Board of Regents said that Emory’s announcement would have no impact on the regents’ policy.
A group of 39 DACA recipients has resumed its legal fight against the state’s in-state tuition policy. It filed an appeal Wednesday with the Georgia Supreme Court after losing at the state Court of Appeals and Fulton County Superior Court. Both of the lower courts ruled sovereign immunity shields Georgia’s Board of Regents from such lawsuits.
Observers say the board may have given the plaintiffs a legal opening in March when it voted to allow residents in neighboring states to pay in-state tuition in Georgia. The initiative is aimed at helping South Georgia colleges that have declining enrollments.
“The Board of Regents’ new policy granting in-state tuition to out-of-state students certainly smells of unfairness to Georgia resident DACA recipients, and may give rise to an equal protection claim in federal court, ” Charles Kuck, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said in an email. “We continue to explore all our options.”
The Board of Regents’ spokesman cited the board’s original policy on in-state tuition for out-of-state students, which included a provision that says “no person who is unable to show by the required evidence that they are lawfully in the United States shall be eligible for any waiver of the tuition differential.”
Twenty-one states now allow students without legal status to pay in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in eight other states, including Georgia, have introduced bills this year to make that happen. Georgia’s Senate Bill 44, however, never got out of committee during the legislative session that ended last week.
As immigrant-rights activists campaigned for SB 44 and fought in court, Emory students —- including Hannah Finnie, Julianna Joss and Andy Kim —- pushed for changes at their university. They wrote opinion pieces for the student newspaper, held panel discussions on campus and met repeatedly with Emory’s administration. The students teamed up with DACA recipients and Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of Freedom University, a nonprofit organization that offers tuition-free college-level courses to students such as Garcia. And while they were all celebrating their success at Emory this week, they said they had more work to do.
“This announcement is a game-changer in Georgia, ” said Soltis, an Emory alumna. “Freedom University and undocumented students are going to continue to urge other private universities in this state to follow Emory’s really courageous example.”