Tuesday seven* undocumented youth were arrested in an act of civil disobedience in Atlanta during a protest. The students oppose a change proposed by the Georgia Board of Regents who want to ban on undocumented students from the state’s top five public colleges and universities. All seven students are currently in jail and are scheduled to appear in court today. They all risk of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Georgia voters recently voted down a ban of undocumented students in all colleges and universities in the state, but the regents, who have governing authority of public colleges, approved a measure banning undocumented students from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia College & State University, and the Medical College of Georgia that will go into effect in the fall.
The protest targeted the administration of Georgia State, demanding that the university “refuse the ban” and continue to allow undocumented immigrants—who already pay out-of-state tuition in Georgia—to enroll there.
The seven students outed themselves as undocumented then entered the Georgia State admissions office to deliver a letter demanding the university not follow the Board of Regent’s directive. After a march through campus to the state capitol, the seven students sat down to block traffic around a large banner that read, “We Will No Longer Remain in the Shadows.”
A number of civil rights movement veterans supported the undocumented students’ cause, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who compared the students’ actions to his own record of civil disobedience against Jim Crow in the South. “I got arrested … 40 times. I was beaten, left bloody, but I didn’t give up. And you must not give up.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Georgia Board of Regents spokesperson John Millsaps, who said that the point of the legislation was to ensure that qualified Georgia residents would not lose access to the state’s public universities due to enrollment of undocumented students.
Georgina Perez, who was one of the eight who came out as undocumented, called this argument out in a statement posted on TheDreamIsComing.com Tuesday.
“This policy, like many other enacted and proposed laws, have nothing to do with the rule of law. Rather, it is clear they are about hate, racism, and the creation of second class of citizens, which is morally wrong and politically influenced,” she said in the statement.
Perez, like the other undocumented students who were arrested, posted an emotional video on YouTube explaining why she was willing to be arrested. In the clip, she calls her parents’ decision to immigrate to the United States without documents “heroic.”
(Stories from the other six undocumented students can be found on The Dream Is Coming’s YouTube page.)
Undocumented youth have not spent much time nursing their wounds from the failure of the DREAM Act in the Senate last year. “Coming Out of the Shadows” rallies, in which DREAMers proclaim their undocumented status to the world, have spread under the banner of “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic.” So many have come out as undocumented that Southern California Public Radio reporter Leslie Berestein Rojas recently posed the question of whether coming out as undocumented is the new coming out as gay or lesbian.
DREAMers say they are fighting for the right to exist in this country, but they aren’t doing just that. These undocumented students are nothing if not smart activists: In staging dramatic civil disobedience actions in states like Georgia that have enacted anti-immigrant measures, they are taking a page from the playbook of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and bringing their fight for equality to states where denials of basic human dignity are starkest.
Georgia, with its ban on undocumented students, is such a place. South Carolina and Colorado have also enacted bans on all undocumented students, and they should expect to see similar actions in the future. Undocumented students have proven that they aren’t afraid of whatever consequences they could face, including deportation, as a result of agitating for legalization.
Gina Perez, the one of the DREAMers who was arrested in Tuesday’s action, summed it up in her video message.
“We’re not going to be silent, we’re not going to be in the shadows, we’re not going to let this happen any longer,” she says. “We’re going to step up and fight for our community.”
UPDATE: In a statement released early Thursday morning, immigrant youth organizers indicated that all seven students were released Wednesday. In a joint statement, the students said, “As soon as we got here they came in, asked us personal questions like where we were born and our birthdays. We were honest with them, we told them we were undocumented.” ICE chose not to involve itself in the case, despite the students’ openness about their undocumented status.
ICE’s decision not to pursue deportation or other measures against the students seems to confirm what many undocumented organizers have claimed for some time: that it is actually safer for young people to come out of the shadows, proclaim their lack of legal status openly, and join with local and national organizing for immigration reform. Deportations under the Obama adminsitration are at higher levels than under President Bush, but immigration authorities seem to hesitate to deport people who are plugged into immigrant organizing, undoubtedly fearing the significant public pressure organizers have shown they are capable of mobilizing.
*This article orginally said there were eight undocumented students. Although there were originally eight students involved, only seven were arrested. We regret the error.
Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress.