ATLANTA—When about 25 students suddenly walked to the front of the room of the Georgia public university system's Board of Regents meeting last week, many in the audience weren't sure what to think. Then the students, some of whom had tape over their mouths, locked their arms and threw their fists in the air, standing silently.
Their act of public defiance—just a day after student protesters forced administrators to resign at the University of Missouri—was the latest in a campaign by undocumented students in Georgia against policies that exclude them from some public universities and deny them in-state tuition rates.
According to rules implemented by the Board of Regents in 2010, undocumented students are not allowed to attend any public institution that "did not admit all academically qualified applicants" in the last two years—in other words, any school where an undocumented student could take the place of a U.S. citizen. That effectively bars them from the top five public universities in the state, including Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and the University of Georgia.
The rule also requires undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, about four times higher than in-state tuition, even for students who've lived in Georgia almost all of their lives. Combined with the fact that undocumented students don't qualify for federal student aid, it means they have to pay out of pocket or rely on private scholarships for college—Georgia is the only state in the country that both bans DREAMers from some public colleges and denies them in-state tuition.
One of the protesters at the meeting was Victor Barragan, a 21-year-old from the Mexican state of Guerrero who has lived in Atlanta since he was three. "We had to hold the pose for 40 minutes," he said, demonstrating the raised fist. "We kept getting tired so we were switching hands."
The regents at first tried to ignore the silent protesters standing a few feet away, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, continuing their meeting as if nothing was happening. But they kept getting distracted, and finally passed a rule requiring audience members to stay in their seats. So the protesters returned to the audience, where they stood on their seats, continuing the raised fist pose. Eventually, capitol police were called in and escorted the students out.
"I was really nervous," said Geovani, who's also from Mexico and who didn't want to provide his last name because he's not covered under President Obama's deferred deportation policy. (His family arrived in the U.S. when he was 13, a few months after the June 2007 cutoff date.) "If we had been arrested, I could have been deported."
The Board of Regents did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the protest or their undocumented students policy. "I think we made our point," Barragan said.
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The protest was organized by students from Freedom University, a free, nonprofit school in Atlanta exclusively for undocumented young people. Launched five years ago, the school holds classes every Sunday afternoon, and acts as a stepping stone, helping undocumented students get into private universities that would grant them financial aid.
Classes are held in semi-secrecy inside a chilly community center in Atlanta (the school has received threats from the Ku Klux Klan in the past). When I visited this past Sunday, about 30 students, most Latino, filtered in carrying notebooks, folders, and dog-eared SAT prep guides. Most kept their coats on in the unheated room.
Howard Winant, a visiting professor from UC Santa Barbara who's known for his work on racial theory, led an engaging seminar on race, discrimination, and power. Students talked about the protests at Yale and Mizzou, and how the media covered terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut.
At times, the discussion veered to the students' personal situation and the Regents' policies. "They think that if they give us the opportunity to go to college, we're going to… run for office, be the next governors, and take their political power," suggested Geovani, one of the most talkative students. "They fear us."
Freedom is hardly a traditional university: Laura Emiko Soltis, the executive director, makes administrative announcements over GroupMe, and volunteer drivers bring the students to their classes. There's no diploma or certificate—it's "education for education's sake," she said.
Two weeks ago, nine of them piled into a van and Soltis drove them up and around the northeast, visiting Ivy League schools and other elite universities that don't care whether you have papers. They stayed with allies in dorms and held speeches about their experiences in activism. While the students were waiting for class to start on Sunday, some marveled at how the architecture at Dartmouth and Yale "looked like Hogwarts."
Protests like the one last week are a key part of the school's DNA. In previous years, they've staged sit-ins that have resulted in arrests. Other actions, coordinated with a network of student allies at other universities, have convinced private institutions in the state like Emory University to change their policies and award some undocumented students in-state tuition.
The name Freedom University Georgia refers to the history of freedom schools, alternative activist schools for African-Americans which were started by Civil Rights activists in the '60s. That historical connection references what students say are state admission policies that are still segregationist—at least when it comes to whether you're undocumented.
The name's abbreviation also doubles as a message to the public higher education system: F. U. Georgia.
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Each student in the class has their own story of the dreams they've set aside because of not being able to attend public university. Geovani managed to get his associate degree in nursing at a private university in the rural south of the state, working several jobs to pay the high tuition.
But even once he got to college, his undocumented status got in the way of success: He was offered a full-ride scholarship, but wasn't able to accept because he wasn't considered an in-state student; he won a national grant to conduct a research project abroad, but had to turn the offer down because he doesn't have a passport. He was in student government and elected to the homecoming court, but it didn't ease his fear of getting deported.
And when his counselor encouraged him to apply for his bachelor's degree, he couldn't explain why that wasn't possible in Georgia. "It was the first time my professors saw me cry," he told me between classes on Sunday. "It made me feel like less of a person, like my hard work was meaningless."
Many undocumented students first learn about the ban when they're seniors in high school applying for college. Sometimes, they'll be accepted and then learn that they're being charged as an out-of-state student, crushing their hopes.
For other students, knowing that college was not an option affected their high school career. "High school was rough for me," said Melanie Rivas-Triana, a short 23-year-old who wore a parka and big pink-framed glasses. "The knowledge that you can't go on to college, it gets to you… It took a lot of my self-esteem away."
Some think about moving elsewhere—in 22 other states, undocumented kids are eligible for in-state tuition—but Georgia is their home.
So standing up against the policies that exclude them has been empowering. Geovani said even though he was scared of what could happen if he got arrested, he found the protest to be invigorating.
"We've got to keep fighting," he said. And then he went back to class.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.