By Guest Columnist PETER DYEAssistant Director of Community and Global Engagement and TheDream.US Scholar Advisor at Oglethorpe University.
Last month, Oglethorpe University hosted the inaugural event “Coalition and Community Building: Supporting Georgia’s Undocumented Students in Higher Education”. The conference was sponsored by the Atlanta Global Research and Education Collaborative (AGREC) and gathered community leaders, college faculty and staff, immigration attorneys, college counselors, local nonprofits, faith-based institutions and immigrant advocacy groups to find new ways to support a group of students that Georgia critically underestimates and frankly actively oppresses.
Oglethorpe has spearheaded the effort because our undocumented student enrollments have steadily increased since our partnership with 2019 The Dream.US, a national scholarship program that provides access to a college education for immigrant youth who arrived in the country at a young age without papers. Even for those of us who work closely with undocumented students, it can be difficult to truly understand the magnitude and scope of the obstacles that face them. This conference aimed to help participants better understand the immigration context affecting their lives and to share best practices and resources for support.
In one session, a panel of Oglethorpe’s undocumented student leaders highlighted the realities of living and studying in undocumented Georgia. Commonalities that tied their stories together included coming to the United States as young children, graduating from K-12 in Georgia, navigating multiple cultures and languages, adjusting to college as first-generation students, none Having access to state tuition or federal financial assistance disqualifies them from admission to Georgia’s top public colleges and receive little to no advice on higher education opportunities in high school. In fact, some have been told directly by high school counselors that college is not an option for them.
The support that the panelists described came mainly from other undocumented students who were willing to speak openly about their status. One of these alumni was a keynote speaker at a conference. like a teenager Yehimi Cambron founded the first undocumented student organization at Cross Keys High School, which is still active today.
Cambrón recounted one of her first confrontations with her “illegality”. At 16, she won third place in an art competition and was invited to a ceremony at the Georgia Capitol to showcase her art and receive an award along with the other winners. She was told she couldn’t claim her $50 prize because she didn’t have a social security number.
“I walked away empty-handed from this gold-domed building where I was honored for my work,” Cambrón said. “I realized that my status was very limiting and would affect my future.”
Since then, she has helped undocumented youth step out of the shadows, gain status, and gain empowerment through education. Cambrón eventually obtained a work permit through the DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) program and was able to return to Cross Keys as an art teacher. She has achieved national recognition as an educator, activist and artist whose art is housed in the High Museum of Art and her murals can be seen throughout Georgia. She has been an inspiration to a number of Oglethorpe students who hope to follow in her footsteps and bring opportunities to those who come after them.
However, these opportunities are still not easy in Georgia. Beyond the challenges of accessing higher education, undocumented Georgians are forced to contend with ever-changing immigration policies that affect their ability to live, work and study. Each of the conference keynote presenters touched on the uncertain future by DACA, the program that has protected tens of thousands of so-called “dreamers” from deportation and granted them work permits in Georgia alone for the past decade (provided they pay the $495 renewal fee every 2 years). However, DACA does not provide a route to citizenship.
Charles Kuck, Managing Partner of Kuck/Baxter Immigration, put into perspective exactly what the end of DACA would mean for the state and country financially. Georgia’s DACA recipient households pay US$151 million in federal taxes and US$88 million in state and local taxes each year. Even undocumented immigrants without DACA contribute taxes through individual tax identification numbers as independent contractors. Most of this tax revenue goes to programs that they cannot use themselves (e.g. Social Security). In addition to taxes collected, US Customs and Immigration (USCIS) has received $1,921,367,745 in DACA filing fees over the past decade. That’s a billion with a b.
Undocumented immigrants contribute far more to our campuses and communities than just tax revenue. They are our campus and communities. An estimate 3,000 Undocumented students graduate from Georgia high schools every year. This state is their home and they should be given the same rights and opportunities for education and work as their neighbors.
So what can we do as individuals and institutions?
Hyein Lee, director of measurement and evaluation for TheDream.US scholarship program, encouraged conference attendees to share this with undocumented students can to go to university. TheDream.US is open to undocumented students and works closely with universities across the country to support them in their academic and professional pursuits.
Lee reminded attendees that DACA recipients have renewable work permits and can be legally hired to work without special sponsorship. For those without DACA, universities can develop inclusive scholarship and internship programs, offer accessible institutional scholarships, encourage independent contracting opportunities, and train prospective graduates to own and operate businesses (which is only possible with a tax identification number).
dr Emiko Soltis, Director of University of Libertycalled on citizens, educators and community members to use their influence to support the undocumented.
“You don’t need to be saved and you’re not speechless,” she said. “Your voices are simply excluded. So listen, organize, and use your privilege to break down barriers that are meant to separate us.”
College and community leaders can organize, learn, educate, vote, and most importantly, serve undocumented students as they follow their lead.
This advice was repeated throughout the sessions as speakers urged participants to take leads from undocumented students, activists and leaders.
“Those closest to the pain are closest to the solutions,” said Daniela Rodriquez, director of Migrant Justice Southeast.
Regardless of what happens with state and federal policies, this conference demonstrated the fact that there are resources and organizations across Georgia to support undocumented people. Despite the often pessimistic outlook for immigration policy reform, undocumented students can pursue their goals, and they have people to turn to for help.
“Even without DACA,” Rodriguez said, “there is hope.”
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