For Illegal Immigrants, Freedom University is the Only Choice

For children of illegal immigrants, getting access to higher education can be a challenge. This is especially true in states like Georgia, where those without legal immigration status are barred from enrolling in the best universities in the state.

In response, several University of Georgia faculty members worked together to create a safe place for those who are barred by law from public colleges but still wish to learn. Appropriately enough, those who toil there call the unofficial school Freedom University.

According to NPR, the name recalls the the schools set up by civil rights activists to teach African-Americans who couldn't attend schools and colleges in the South prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Pam Voekel, a UG professor and one of the volunteer instructors at the school, says that she views her work in a similar light.

"They really do see this as a civil rights struggle," she says. "They are being excluded from higher education, and so we went with that as part of that kind of tribute to that prior struggle."

Freedom University came about as a form a protest against the Georgia law that bars undocumented immigrants from enrolling in the top five Georgia colleges and universities and makes out-of-state tuition mandatory for attending schools in the state's public university system. Protests in response to the law took place on almost every campus in the state, yet some students and professors were eager to contribute more than just their voice raised in anger against the new law.

Many of Voekel's students have been living in the country since they were children. Some have always been aware of their precarious legal position, and some were taken by surprise when they tried to apply to a college and were told that they could not. Martin Lopez Garcia – now 24 years old – was brought to the country by his family when he was only 4 years old. He knew that he was here illegally, but didn't understand what it meant until he attempted to transfer out of community college into a four-year university and was told that he'd need to pay an additional $2,000 in tuition – money he didn't have. His only choice was to drop out.

Martin wants a college degree and, in the meantime, is applying for deferred status under the Obama administration's recent executive action. Last June, the president announced the new process to give a two-year work visa to some undocumented young people. Latino groups have been holding information sessions across the community. Another Freedom U student, Yovany Diaz, gets help filling out his application.

Yovany says he hopes he'll be among those who get the new visa, but he's skeptical of the policy.

Lorgia Garcia-Pena, who is another Freedom University instructor remains skeptical about the deferred action policy, mainly because it is both a temporary solution and doesn't deal with the needs of students. He said that the extent of the protection offered by the work permit is a promise that those who obtain it won't be deported in the next two years. It doesn't provide a meaningful path to citizenship, even for those who have been living in America since they were kids.

Those who fought to pass the restrictions say only legal residents should be allowed to attend public schools. Earlier this year, state Se. Barry Loudermilk lobbied for a measure that would have expanded the current ban from five universities to all public colleges.

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