Last Thursday evening, Laura Emiko Soltis, a professor of human rights at Freedom University in Georgia, gave her keynote address to a full room at UC Riverside’s Center for Ideas and Society. Soltis kicked off the one day Challenging Borders symposium with an impassioned speech on social justice.
With a focus on the rights of undocumented people to have access to higher education, Soltis walked the engaged audience through the obstacles which would-be students in Georgia face in their day-to-day life.
The presentation highlighted the laws in Georgia (policies 4.1.6 and 4.3.4 respectively) which ban undocumented people from attending the top five state universities and from receiving in-state tuition rates.
Families in Georgia without legal status face three major hurdles in getting their children to college, one economical, one social and one informational. First, many undocumented families can not afford the steep price tag of the best colleges. Second, they are fearful for their family because of the common perception that applying to college or coming out as undocumented are the first steps to deportation. Therefore, students are often relegated to a less risky and less rewarding educational path.
Finally, many undocumented students do not know that they can or how to apply to college. Estefany Cortes, a political science and law and society and Spanish literature double major believes “The most significant obstacle that undocumented students are facing today to obtain an education is the lack of knowledge about applying to colleges. Like my parents, both of them only had an education to the seventh grade. When I was getting ready to apply both my parents and myself did not have any knowledge of the college process or where to apply. However, we learned because I was involved in the AVID program, which guided me through the college process.”
Cortes elaborated, “The most hurtful obstacle I had to overcome being undocumented was when my family was being discriminated against. I remember once an old lady told my dad to go back to Mexico and take his annoying dirty illegal family as well, I was only 7 when this happened.” Cortes was brought to the United States illegally when she was six, and has since faced an uphill climb to attend UC Riverside, attaining her citizenship three days before her 18th birthday.
In a state that prides itself on progressive policies, California may seem far removed from the issue of discrimination, yet Soltis warned that creating an underclass of working people who can not attain higher education is a form of discrimination akin to Jim Crow laws in the South. Freedom University seeks out undocumented students and involves them heavily in activism, debate and education.
Students from the university often travel across Georgia, engaging with debate teams at the very universities they are barred from entering.
Cortes concluded, “Why should students help undocumented students? It’s simple, because we are students who have to overcome different obstacles, but at the end we are here with one sole purpose: to obtain a higher education and a great future.”