UNDER LAST month's executive action by President Obama, millions of previously unauthorized immigrants can now apply for work permits and prevent deportation.
The order also expands the benefits for recipients of 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects young people from deportation so they can focus on education and employment opportunities.
That’s all good news for 19 year-old Elly Marisol Estrada, whose “DACA-mented” status gives her lawful presence, a Social Security number and a drivers’ license.
It also allows her to work legally, vital for a young person putting herself through college.
The presidential order does not, however, grant her the ability to attend the state’s top universities—in spite of her stellar academic record. Nor does it afford the longtime Georgia resident in-state tuition rates at her current school, Armstrong University.
While more than 21 states have passed legislation granting in-state tuition and access to public universities for qualified DACA students, a ban passed by the Board of Regents in October 2010 forbids their admission to Georgia’s most competitive universities, including University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia, and Georgia College & State University.
Buoyed by support from local business and community leaders, Estrada and a core group of DACA youth have joined the statewide movement to remove these limitations on their educational opportunities as the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance (SUYA).
“Our overarching goal is two-fold. First, we want to reverse the Board of Regents college ban because education doors should be open to everyone,” explains Estrada, a sophomore working towards a double major in Political Science and Spanish.
“The second part is to get rid of out-of-state tuition rates for DACA students.”
Estrada appears to be exactly the kind of student the president’s executive order aims to support: She arrived in the U.S. at the age of 8 with her mother from Jalisco, Mexico and endured abuse, hunger and other hardships as they bounced from Illinois to Indiana before finally settling in Savannah, where her mother found undocumented work in a wood shop.
A driven student, Estrada graduated in 2013 from Johnson High’s International Baccalaureate program with full honors, earning 25 Advanced Placement credits to apply to her college education.
She was accepted to several colleges including Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she was offered scholarships that would have covered the bulk of her tuition and expenses. She chose to stay in Savannah to help her mother raise her three younger siblings, but that admirable decision didn’t come with the same financial rewards granted to other top students who stay in Georgia: For a full-time course load, in-state tuition for 2014 was $3005 per semester. Out-of-state fees were $9106.
In April 2013, three local Latino students were arrested while peacefully protesting the ban at a Board of Regents meeting here. This year, a Regents meeting in Atlanta faced similar protests.
Also in 2014, while addressing a forum on integration on the UGA campus, Gov. Nathan Deal made national news for his unfortunate presumption that a Latina student activist was undocumented.
Estrada works as an on-campus peer advisor and on the weekends as a cashier at Keller’s Flea Market, yet still finds time to cultivate a passion for social justice. She not only serves as SUYA’s director but is active in other policy-oriented groups as well.
“I’m interested in justice not only for myself but for everyone,” she says, agreeing that she has a “fire in the belly” for activism and equality.
Last summer she interned at Georgia Legal Services, and when asked if she plans to go on to law school, she replies definitively, “I’m going to law school, yes.”
“I plan to work for social justice in general, not only in the U.S., not only in Georgia or Savannah.”
Rather than stage more protests, however, Estrada and other SUYA members want to educate the local community to help influence policymakers and the Board of Regents to reverse the ban.
“When I started school that fall, I started to hear a lot of negative connotations about speaking up for deferred action and in-state tuition, so my immediate response was ‘education,’” says Estrada.
“If we’re going to protest and speak up, we need to let people know why.”
Their cause has been helped by several civil rights organizations, including Freedom University, an Atlanta-based school that specializes in free education for undocumented youth. The non-profit helped SUYA organize an informational forum on the Armstrong campus last spring, and while progress remains slow, the tactic caught the attention of administrators.
“We are sensitive to these issues and encourage Armstrong students to be critical thinkers and to question the process,” says Georj Lewis, Armstrong’s vice president of student affairs.
“We welcome DACA students at Armstrong and recently hosted a DACA Forum on campus, which was quite well-attended. We offer a variety of scholarships for Latino students and are currently expanding our efforts to make education even more accessible for DACA students.”
Estrada is also working with the Highlander Center in Tennessee, the grassroots social justice school attended by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.
Locally, SUYA has enlisted the help of Johnson High School IB director and Tybee Island mayor Jason Buelterman, who has guided them towards a communications and media strategy. Other community leaders have offered resources and advice.
Perhaps the biggest boost in morale came when SUYA members met with former Savannah mayor Otis Johnson last year. As a prominent presence in Savannah’s Civil Rights movement and Armstrong’s first African-American student, Johnson had valuable wisdom to impart.
“I sat down with the former mayor and shared with him some of the problems going on, and the advice he gave was to start a movement, get a solid group of people together and keep working,” recounts Estrada.
“I was very inspired. After we met with him, we became much more organized.”
Since then, SUYA has widened its circle to the entire community. Members are recruiting high school students and reaching out to DACA students at Savannah State and Savannah Tech, advocating for those students to be able to attend Georgia’s top engineering and medical schools.
The semester may be winding down, but SUYA will continue to meet every other Monday to plan short term and long term goals—with the ultimate intent of affecting legislation at the state level.
Though Estrada knows there’s more organizing and work to be done, the future lawyer has no plans to back down.
“I’m in Savannah because I want to make a change.”