Police arrested seven students who occupied the Georgia Board of Regents before the board’s monthly meeting, holding their own alternative meeting Tuesday morning. Both undocumented and documented, the protesters were students from Emory University, Georgia State University, and Freedom University, a modern-day freedom school for undocumented students based in Atlanta. The students have all been released on bail.
This protest was the latest in a long string of battles for tuition equity in Georgia. The state bans undocumented students, no matter how long they have lived in the state, from attending the top five public colleges in the state and denies them access to in-state tuition rates at the other schools.
Legal battles are being fought too: In February, some Georgia students who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children but had been granted temporary permission to stay through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, sued the Georgia Board of Regents. The Georgia Supreme Court rejected their appeal, deciding that the Board of Regents, which controls the University System of Georgia, was immune from lawsuits. Now, 10 undocumented young people are filing suit against each member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents for denying them in-state tuition at state universities.
Led by The Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA), a group representing undocumented students, the students argue that they are in the country legally under DACA, which allows qualified immigrants under a certain age to obtain work permits and protection from deportation for two-year renewable periods.
Since 2012, the initiative has benefited more than 665,000 people, particularly in states like California, Illinois, and Texas, according to the American Immigration Council. But as of April 2016, it is still sitting in a legal limbo awaiting a final Supreme Court decision.
“Today our lawsuit for in-state tuition against the Georgia Board of Regents was filed in the Superior Court of Fulton County! All 20 members are being sued in their individual capacities removing all arguments of sovereign immunity,” GUYA wrote in a recent Facebook post.
“It has been almost three years since we have been fighting our case in the courts, and each time we are getting closer at winning our fight for access to education,” the post continues. “The ban is also mentioned in our lawsuit. Any decision in our favor will most likely remove the ban to the top five universities of Georgia.
The post went on to quote a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court dismissing the February lawsuit that was similarly filed against the state: “[O]ur decision today does not mean that citizens aggrieved by the unlawful conduct of public officers are without recourse. It means only that they must seek relief against such officers in their individual capacities.”
“We are bringing this action against the individual members of the Board of Regents for their failure to correctly implement their own rules on in-state tuition,” attorney Charles Kuck says in a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Justice, common sense and Georgia’s own economic self-interest all demand in-state tuition for DACA recipients. We will fight for this until we win. The hope of Georgia’s children is at stake.”
It is important to note the stark difference between in-state and nonresident tuition, which, at the University of Georgia, is about $19,000 a year, or roughly $25,000 for residents versus $44,000 for nonresidents, according to the International Business Times.
In March, GUYA had launched a Change.org petition after the state’s board of regents approved in-state tuition rates for residents of Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida to attract students to South Georgia schools. The petition alleged that the change was unfair to undocumented immigrants who allegedly pay taxes to the state. However, it fell more than 8,000 signatures short of its 10,000 signature goal.
“My family has been paying GA taxes for the last 15 years, it is ridiculous that the Board of Regents continue to deny us entrance to Universities that we have helped fund,” Maria Carrillo, one of the students listed in the lawsuit, writes on the petition site. Several students were also arrested for protesting over tuition rates at Georgia State University in February, WXIA reports.
Further, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a separate federal lawsuit last month on behalf of two immigrant college students who live in the state but are required to pay out-of-state tuition. Since arriving in the U.S., they have graduated from local Georgia high schools, paid their taxes, and continued to reside peacefully in the state. Georgia’s policy, the suit claims, is pre-empted by federal immigration law and therefore violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee because it denies in-state tuition without a constitutionally valid justification.
According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, almost 20 states currently have policies that allow undocumented immigrants receive in-state tuition rates, among them California, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington.
At least six states, including Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas let undocumented students receive state financial aid—though states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Indiana specifically ban public universities from offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, while Alabama and South Carolina forbid schools from enrolling them at all.
As of right now, University System of Georgia spokesman Charles Sutlive has declined to comment on the pending litigation.