Georgia activists, immigrants without legal status find common cause

Salvador Alvarado-Linares wore homemade orange and black monarch butterfly wings to the sit-in at the University of Georgia. Fashioned from paint, a cardboard box and ribbon, the El Salvadorian native’s broad wings were meant to show “migration is beautiful” — Monarch butterflies fly from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico each year, a highly publicized spectacle.

For many hours last month, the 21-year-old Berkmar High School graduate refused to budge from a UGA classroom. He did it to protest state policies that bar him and other immigrants without legal status in the U.S. from attending some of the state’s top universities and paying lower in-state tuition rates to attend other Georgia colleges.

Exhilarated by his first experience with civil disobedience, Alvarado-Linares also feared he would get in trouble with the law and jeopardize the temporary deportation deferral he had received from the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Yet he was encouraged to stick it out because he wasn’t alone.

More than 90 other protesters from a dozen colleges — including U.S. citizens and people like Alvarado-Linares who were illegally brought here as children — had joined him at sit-ins at UGA, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. All three are closed to immigrants without legal status under a policy covering state institutions that have not admitted all academically qualified applicants for the two most recent school years. Among the other protesters were Hispanics, whites and Asian-Americans as well as black students from Spelman and Morehouse colleges.

Such multi-racial coalitions are forming across the U.S., finding common cause over discrimination and low voter participation while demonstrating against anti-illegal immigration policies. For example, the Black/Brown Coalition of Arizona has called on Congress to adopt a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without papers. And last month, black and Hispanic activists brought traffic to a halt in downtown Chicago, while protesting against recent immigration enforcement raids.

Critics object to such disruptive tactics — 14 students were arrested on charges of trespassing during the campus sit-ins in Georgia — and say in-state tuition should be reserved for Georgians with legal status.

The arguments for and against illegal immigration are familiar. Opponents contend it depresses wages and displaces U.S.-born workers, especially low-skilled laborers. Many prominent economists say immigration grows demand for goods and services, creating more jobs and allowing U.S.-born workers to take higher-skilled positions.

But the new alliances could give the movement fresh voices while, at the same time, evoking the Civil Rights struggle.

Tyra Beaman — a Spelman student from Richmond, Va. — joined the sit-ins at Georgia State University on Feb. 1. That was the same day the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected an appeal aimed at allowing students like Alvarado-Linares to pay the substantially lower in-state college tuition rates. The timing was a coincidence as the students had planned their protests over four months to happen on the 56th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins aimed at desegregating Woolworth’s stores.

Blacks and Hispanics, Beaman said, now face some of the same struggles in the U.S.

“Realizing that as much as we expect people to fight for us in terms of civil rights and voting rights and fighting against police brutality,” she said, “we need to be fighting for them as well.”

It’s a two-way street, she added. Alvarado-Linares and other Freedom University students have joined forces with her and others from historically black colleges in helping draft a “United Appeal for Human Rights.” It is modeled after the 1960 “Appeal for Human Rights” black civil rights activists published in Atlanta newspapers to combat segregation.

Some of those who were involved in the original appeal — Lonnie King and Charles Black — are guiding the young students in the new effort. King has been encouraging black and Latino activists to team up and start a “nonviolent, morally-based movement couched in human rights.”

“What you have here is a logical extension of the struggle by all people to get under the umbrella of freedom, justice and equality in America,” said King, a Morehouse graduate and one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group. “The Hispanics and the blacks ought to come together. They have a lot of commonality of interests.”

Gathering at a friend’s home near Candler Park, King, Black and the young activists recently worked on the appeal with Laura Emiko Soltis, the executive director of Freedom University. It was growing late in the evening. Paper plates laden with discarded pizza crusts were piled up on the coffee table. Alvarado-Linares occasionally took photos to mark the occasion. Bleary-eyed, the students wrestled with what to include and what to leave out of their appeal. They talked about the ills of income inequality, racial profiling and the private corrections industry.

Among others working on the document are Caleb Henderson, a Morehouse student from Kansas City, and Susana Ramirez, a Freedom University student and a native of Colombia with a temporary deportation deferral. Henderson, who is black, said he sees parallels between the obstacles faced by blacks and Hispanics and wants to continue building bridges between the two groups in Atlanta. Ramirez, who was brought to the U.S. when she was five and now lives in Norcross, agreed. She said it was an honor to have King and Black’s help.

“I think about how in the future I might be them,” she said. “And I might be 60. But I might be sitting in a living room telling the new group of youths who are experiencing oppression in the United States what to write about and how to write it.”

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