Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, a native of Uruguay and a graduate of Berkmar High School in Gwinnett County, left Georgia to attend Dartmouth College on a full scholarship. She wanted to attend the University of Georgia but was barred by the state from doing so. (Lars Blackmore / For the AJC)

'UGA could have had my brain': Immigration rules bar students, spark lawsuits

But Georgia’s policies bar her from UGA — plus two other top schools — and block her from paying in-state tuition rates at the rest of its colleges, all because of something she lacks: legal status in the U.S. Undaunted, the native of Uruguay moved more than 1,000 miles north to study here in this verdant part of New England at Dartmouth College, a top-ranked Ivy League school. The home of the Big Green, Dartmouth made Gonzalez’s decision easy by offering to let her attend all four years at no cost. Driven and whip-smart, Gonzalez, 20, is aiming to become a neonatologist.

Gonzalez and other young immigrants who have grown up in the United States find themselves in the cross hairs of an escalating political battle playing out on federal and state levels. President-elect Donald Trump is proposing to follow up on his election promises and crack down hard on illegal immigration. The Republican, for example, has pledged to cancel an Obama administration program that is temporarily shielding from deportation Gonzalez and more than 741,000 other young immigrants across the nation. In Georgia, some of these same immigrants find themselves banned from prestigious state schools as legal battles rage on. Georgia’s rules are now the target of three lawsuits pending in state and federal courts.

Supporters of the of the state’s restrictive admissions and tuition policies argue they’re doing exactly what they are intended to: helping deter illegal immigration. Claire Harrison, a Cherokee County resident who volunteered in Trump’s campaign, said she sympathizes with immigrants like Gonzalez.

“It is not that I don’t feel for people trying to better their lives — but not at the expense of people trying to do it right,” she said. “We just elected a president who has said, ‘Folks, we have to look after our own first.’”

Critics counter they’re harming Georgia’s economy and contributing to a Peach State brain drain. Gonzalez and others are leaving Georgia to study at respected out-of-state colleges on scholarships. Among their destinations are Hampshire, Smith and Tougaloo colleges and Eastern Connecticut State and Syracuse universities. Those schools — eager to accept gifted students like Gonzalez — are welcoming those Georgia won’t take.

“The only difference I have with a UGA student is that person has a series of numbers that I don’t,” Gonzalez said, referring to how she wasn’t issued a Social Security number at birth like those born in the U.S. “If anything, I can be just as qualified — or overqualified. I’m not at UGA, but I’m at an Ivy League institution. And UGA could have had my brain.”

Jessica Colotl” title= Georgia adopted its restrictive admissions and in-state tuition rules in 2010, just months after a Kennesaw State University police officer arrested Jessica Colotl on campus. Many were outraged when they learned KSU was charging her an in-state tuition rate. (AJC file)

An arrest on campus

Georgia adopted its college rules in 2010, just months after a Kennesaw State University police officer arrested Jessica Colotl on campus. A native of Mexico who was brought to the U.S. without authorization when she was 11, the Lakeside High School graduate was charged with impeding traffic and driving without a license. Critics of illegal immigration grew angry when they learned KSU was charging her an in-state tuition rate.

Federal authorities held Colotl in an immigration detention center in Alabama for more than a month before giving her a reprieve and allowing her to finish her degree in 2011 at KSU, which started charging her out-of-state tuition. Now working as a paralegal in a bustling Atlanta-area law office, Colotl has been granted a temporary deportation deferral and a work permit through the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the same program Trump wants to cancel. More than 23,000 other Georgians have been approved for DACA so far.

Colotl’s arrest became a political flashpoint and the Georgia Board of Regents swung into action. Appointed by the governor, the board cited concerns it said it had received from the public that the university system was being “swamped by thousands of undocumented students,” that Georgia was subsidizing their education through in-state tuition and that they were taking college seats from academically qualified Georgians with legal status.

The regents found that only 501 “undocumented” people — all paying out-of-state tuition — were among the system’s 310,000 students, or less than 1 percent, according to the minutes of their Oct. 13, 2010, meeting. The minutes show an unknown number may have been in the country legally but had incomplete documents. Of the 501 students, just two were attending UGA, which had to turn away qualified students with legal status in the fall of 2010 semester. The regents also found the university system was generating a “small profit” from the students who were paying out-of-state tuition rates, which are about three times higher than the in-state rates.

Protest of immigration policies” title= Protesters demonstrate in November against  Board of Regents policies that bar immigrants without legal status from attending some of the state’s top schools and from paying in-state tuition rates at others. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

The board ultimately adopted a policy that bars students lacking legal status from attending any of its schools that did not admit all academically qualified applicants for the two most recent academic years. That prohibition now applies to UGA and Georgia Tech as well as Georgia College & State University. The board just announced it was pulling Augusta and Georgia State universities off that list. The regents also adopted a separate policy requiring all universities to verify the “lawful presence” of students seeking in-state tuition.

“Clearly, our institutions are not being inundated by undocumented students and Georgia taxpayers are not subsidizing the small number enrolled,” then-regent James Jolly, who led the board’s Residency Verification Committee, said at the time. Yet, he said adopting the new policies would “serve to both strengthen and validate the current admissions policies and procedures that we have in place.”

Twenty states allow immigrants without legal status to pay in-state tuition rates, according to reports by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the University Leaders for Educational Access and Diversity Network. In addition to Georgia, seven states block them from attending some or all of their public colleges and paying in-state tuition. South Carolina, for example, bars them from all of its state colleges and universities. In contrast, North Carolina prohibits them from attending its public universities unless they have graduated from U.S. high schools and blocks them from paying in-state tuition.

Now 28, Colotl is preparing to apply to law school so she can become an immigration attorney and help people like herself.

“We are talking about people who have grown up in Georgia,” she said. “Therefore, we believe in American values. And to be banned for something that is out of our hands — or something that we had nothing to do with — it’s just a crazy idea.”

Epic of American Civilization” title= Immigrants living without legal status in Georgia take in the “Epic of American Civilization,” a striking mural by Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco. (Lars Blackmore / For the AJC)

Court battles

Salvador Alvarado-Linares graduated two years ago in the top 5 percent of his class and competed on the tennis and cross country teams at Berkmar High School in Lilburn, even while working full time as a busboy and a waiter to support his family.

Studious and exceedingly polite, the 21-year-old Salvadoran native wanted to attend one of Georgia’s top universities so he could stay close to his family. But he is barred because he lacks legal status in the U.S. So like Gonzalez, Alvarado-Linares is attending Dartmouth on a full scholarship.

“My mom is a single mother with four children, including me,” said Alvarado-Linares, who was smuggled into the U.S. when he was a child. “It was very difficult for her to be able to maintain a home. If I had a chance, I would have chosen to be near family. And that would have been in Georgia.”

With two other DACA recipients from Georgia, Alvarado-Linares, who wants to become an immigration lawyer, filed a federal suit in September against the Georgia Board of Regents, seeking to lift its admissions ban. They have teamed up with a local law firm and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, both of which filed a separate federal lawsuit in March seeking to scrap the state’s in-state tuition ban for DACA recipients.

The two suits say the board’s policies violate the plaintiffs’ Equal Protection rights and are preempted by federal law, allegations the regents deny. They also have highlighted that immigrants like Alvarado-Linares are paying income, sales and other taxes. Last year, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute — a left-leaning think tank — issued a report that says barring such students from in-state tuition rates costs Georgia about $10 million in lost tax revenue each year by decreasing access to higher education and better-paying jobs.

A third lawsuit is pending in the Fulton County Superior Court. A local immigration attorney — Charles Kuck — and 10 plaintiffs are suing each of the regents in that court. This is their second attempt to reverse the state policy barring in-state tuition for DACA recipients. This year, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously rejected their first attempt, saying sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that protects state agencies from being sued, shields the Board of Regents from such lawsuits.

Board of Regents Chairman Kessel Stelling Jr. and Chancellor Hank Huckaby declined to comment about the policies, citing the pending lawsuits. Instead, they released a statement saying the board adopted the policies “to comply with federal and state laws, and they mirror guidance from the Office of the Attorney General."

In his lawsuit, Kuck is pointing to federal records that say DACA recipients are considered legally present in the U.S.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, who leads a House panel that oversees higher education funding, said he understands some of Georgia’s best and brightest students might be leaving the state because of the rules the regents adopted.

“I’m comfortable with that,” the Republican from Powder Springs said. “You make choices… and I don’t think we should be accommodating those who are not in this country legally.”

Dartmouth tour” title= A small group of Georgians recently toured Dartmouth College as part of an annual Northeast college tour organized by Atlanta-based Freedom University. (Lars Blackmore / For the AJC)

‘I can hope’

A light but steady rain fell as a small group of young Georgians left a meeting with Dartmouth’s admissions officials and began to explore the leafy campus. Bundled up against New Hampshire’s chilly October air — it was snowing heavily on the other side of the Connecticut River in Vermont — they met up with Gonzalez and followed a friendly tour guide around the college’s stately brick buildings and through the busy Baker-Berry Library. Once inside the library, they gazed at the “Epic of American Civilization,” a striking 20th century mural by Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco.

The visitors are all students at Atlanta-based Freedom University, a tuition-free college preparation school for immigrants without legal status. Inspired by the freedom schools set up to educate blacks during the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom University scheduled the Dartmouth visit as part of its an annual tour of Northeast colleges. Natives of Colombia, Eastern Europe and Mexico joined this year’s trip, following in the footsteps of Alvarado-Linares and Gonzalez, who went on previous tours.

Their Dartmouth tour guide praised the college’s academics, highlighted its NCAA sports teams and mentioned how Boston is just a two-hour drive from campus. Laborers were busy on campus, stacking wooden pallets in preparation for a massive homecoming bonfire that evening. Dartmouth’s football team was scheduled to square off against Harvard University the next day. Thousands of alumni were streaming into Hanover for the big weekend.

Garcia Gonzales at Dartmouth” title= Valentina Garcia Gonzalez, left, meets with Citlalli Garcia, a South Gwinnett High graduate. Citalli Garcia was on a tour of northeastern colleges organized by Freedom University in Atlanta. (Lars Blackmore / for the AJC)

Citlalli Garcia, 18, a South Gwinnett High School graduate from Mexico who has received DACA, said she felt encouraged by the visit and confirmed she was planning to apply to Dartmouth.

“It shows me that I can hope,” she said.

“I know college is the right place for me — where I can finally fit in,” she said moments later at a panel discussion sponsored by the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers. “I always felt like I never belonged. And education is a place where you can finally reach what you have always been looking for — your purpose in life.”

A mission

Valentina Garcia Gonzalez lives on the Dartmouth campus in a cozy white house with green shutters and distinctive dormers. Named La Casa, the home is sponsored by the college’s Spanish and Portuguese Department and serves as a center of Hispanic activities on campus. Near the kitchen, Gonzalez proudly pointed to a “Day of the Dead” display meant to honor the spirits of the deceased. It featured brightly colored flowers and fruit as well as a container of mate, a popular tea from Gonzalez’s native South America. Her home is a short walk to the classrooms where she is studying philosophy and sociology. She has also joined her college’s cheerleading squad.

Gonzalez remembers falling in love with the campus when she visited during a tour two years ago. Of the eight out-of-state colleges to which she applied, Dartmouth was the only one that accepted her. She cried when she got the news.

“It was the prettiest campus ever,” said Gonzalez, who as a young child was brought by her family to the U.S. “When I toured Dartmouth, I could actually see myself at the school walking to class. I could actually see myself having friends and walking to the cafeteria. And now I am here doing that.”

While she is enjoying her time at Dartmouth, Gonzalez is also finding the experience stressful. First, she said she is striving to “over-achieve” amid the possibility of misperceptions that she is taking a seat at Dartmouth from someone who has legal status and who therefore might be considered more deserving. Second, she misses her tight-knit family back in Georgia. And third, she is now worried that Trump will cancel the DACA program, which has granted her a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. Without DACA, she said, she wouldn’t be able to drive, work or live without the fear of deportation.

Still, she is determined to graduate from Dartmouth and go on to medical school. Gonzalez also sees herself as part of a growing tradition among Freedom University students. An upperclassman from Georgia — Melissa Padilla, 26, a Mexican native from Winder and an aspiring film producer — put in a good word for Gonzalez with Dartmouth admissions officials. And Gonzalez did the same for her friend, Alvarado-Linares, who came to New Hampshire a year behind her.

“I took it upon myself — a very personal endeavor — to make sure Salvador would be here. I made it my mission,” Gonzalez said. “I’m so glad he is here.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X