ATLANTA—DREAMers in Georgia scored an important victory last week when a judge ruled that the state’s public colleges and universities must charge in-state tuition to qualifying immigrant students.
The ruling, which was handed down just as tuition checks are due for the upcoming semester, stands to benefit hundreds of students who are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status and currently pay out-of-state tuition fees despite residing in-state.
But schools have been slow to respond to the ruling or adjust their fee structure, dampening the immigrant students’ celebration and raising doubts about how much tuition they actually owe and when.
The uncertainty over the tuition fees in Georgia will likely be resolved this week, but it draws attention to the wider uncertainty that DACA recipients are facing about their immediate futures as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to undo Obama’s executive actions on immigration—perhaps during his first week in office, considering it's the easiest of his campaign promises to actually deliver on.
So even as DACA students in Georgia fight to seal their win this week, could it all be for not if Trump eliminates DACA as soon as next week?
“We don’t want a pyrrhic victory. We want to make it real victory,” says Charles Kuck, the attorney representing the students. “We want the kids to get in-state tuition now, while we know DACA still exists. We do not know what will happen to the program or to the kids’ employment status after (Trump’s inauguration).”
The Georgia ruling appears straightforward enough: Students with a “lawful presence” qualify for in-state tuition, and the judge ruled that DACA students are indeed lawfully present.
But when students started calling their colleges last week about tuition payments, they were told the situation hasn't changed as the Board of Regents, which supervises the colleges, appeals the judge's decision. If the request for a stay is denied, DACA students will get in-state tuition immediately.
There's a second scenario. In Georgia, judicial orders become enforceable 10 days after being issued. So even if the judge doesn’t rule on the appeal, it will enter into force next Monday.
DACA students are optimistic that the ruling will stand and cement their eligibility for more affordable higher education. It would come as a huge relief to hundreds of immigrant students who are working full-time jobs to put themselves through school.
Mexican-born Josafat Rivero, who was brought here by his parents when he was 9 years old, graduated from a Georgia high school in 2006 and has since been earning college credits little by little while working a full-time job to pay for school.
The 28-year-old DACA recipient was one of the plaintiffs who sued the regents for in-state tuition.
“I was happy. Shocked,” he told me after last week's win.
He says at his current pace, it would have taken him two more years to finish his undergraduate degree. But with in-state tuition, he could graduate sooner.
Similarly fellow Mexican immigrant Yeri Castro Garcia says in-state tuition would make his longtime goal of getting a degree more attainable.
Castro graduated from high school in 2009, but couldn’t afford the out-of-state costs for the public college. That was before DACA, so his options were really limited. He instead decided to find a job, which was a challenge in itself.
“It’s hard because with no social security number, no driver’s license, the constant thought in your mind of deportation, getting stopped by the cops,” Castro told me.
When DACA was announced in 2012, it was a “game-changer,” Castro said. “I was released from all the pressure of being deported and it opened some doors for me.”
With DACA status came success. Castro got jobs in sales and insurance underwriting, and was able to put away enough money to enroll in college to study astronomy. He says he can’t understate the impact that paying in-state tuition will have on him. Instead of having enough savings to pay for only one semester, Castro can now afford to pay for three semesters and he won't feel the same pressure to keep a full-time job to stay in school.
Despite the optimism over in-state tuition, other obstacles continue to loom on the near horizon for DACA students.
In Georgia, one state senator has said he wants to introduce legislation to deny in-state tuition to any undocumented immigrant student, DACA or not.
And Trump's hardline stance on immigration spells uncertainty, even though he recently told Time magazine he would find a solution “that’s going to make people happy and proud” because DACA recipients “got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here.”
Trump's ambiguity on the situation has left many immigrants unsettled. Castro told me that he is worried about what Trump can do, or undo, once he is president. But for now, he's focused on defending the victory for in-state tuition.
Rivero has a similar outlook.
Trump “is definitely a loose cannon. No one really knows what he’s going to do,” he said.
He feels emboldened by his successful lawsuit against the regents. If the need arises to take up the fight again, he is ready.
“All together, we are stronger than one man,” he said.
Mariano Castillo is a journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia.