How some immigrant student activists are tapping the civil rights playbook

The World
Freedom University

In the spring of his senior year in high school, Arturo Martinez’s friends began showing off their college acceptance letters. “Why are you not going to college?” he recalled them asking. “I mean, you’re so smart, you can go to Georgia Tech or UGA [University of Georgia].” Martinez didn’t want to tell them he couldn’t attend those schools because of his immigration status.

Martinez crossed the border illegally from Mexico with his family when he was 8 years old, and grew up in Atlanta. After high school, Martinez applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program launched by the Barack Obama administration in 2012. It lets people like Martinez, who came to the US illegally as kids, stay in the country and work temporarily. But he still can’t enroll in Georgia’s top colleges: the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia College and State University. At any of the others, he’d have to pay nonresident tuition.

“I can’t afford [the tuition], even if I had two jobs,” said Martinez, who now works in construction with his dad.

Arturo Martinez, 22, enrolled in Freedom University after high school. He hopes to attend college in Georgia to study computer science.Courtesy of Arturo Martinez

The federal government sets immigration policy, but states have a lot of leeway in determining how welcoming or unwelcoming they want to be to unauthorized immigrants living within their borders. Georgia has some of the strictest policies in the country.

Critics say barring undocumented students from enrolling in certain schools and charging them higher tuition makes college effectively out of reach. They say it’s reminiscent of Jim Crow, and they're using tactics of the civil rights era to fight back. Supporters say these policies are about taking care of Georgians first.

As Martinez watched his friends go off to college, he grew depressed. Then his mom found out about Freedom University. It’s modeled after freedom schools from the civil rights era. It has also received a boost from high-profile advisers, including author Junot Díaz who talked up the school on "The Colbert Report." Martinez took free, college prep classes at Freedom University and was inspired by mentors like Charles Black, who led the Atlanta Student Movement in the early 1960s.

This is a picture of Charles Black in the 1961 Morehouse College yearbook. Black was the second chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement from 1961 to 1962.Courtesy of Charles Black

“There was no college in Miami that I could attend because of my race. None,” said Black, who grew up in Florida. In 1958, he came to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, a historically black college.

Legal segregation still governed life in the South. “It was illegal for blacks and whites to sit together in a place of public assembly,” said Black, recalling the segregated buses, restaurants, hotels, taxicabs and ambulances. “I mean, all these things were the law. You know? Just like this is the law now that we are fighting against.”

In 1960, Black was arrested for desegregating the whites-only waiting room at Atlanta’s Terminal train station. Four years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 toppled Jim Crow.

At age 76, Black now serves on the board of Freedom University, teaching the civil disobedience tactics he practiced as a young man.

One of Freedom University’s main targets is the Georgia Board of Regents. At a meeting in February, about a dozen Freedom University students and allies dressed in business casual and took seats in the audience. It was Valentine’s Day, and they carried carnations and homemade cards asking the regents to repeal policies restricting undocumented students. Six Freedom University professors, dressed in caps and gowns, sat across the room.

Soon after the meeting began, the students began filing to the back of the room. The professors walked to the front and announced, "I am a teacher, and I love these students.”

Freedom University student Arizbeth Sanchez recently protested the Georgia Board of Regents' decision to block undocumented students' access to in-state tuition. Sanchez says that she hopes to study computer science.Sasha Aslanian

The meeting went into recess and the regents were whisked from the room. Carnations littered the floor, and a member of the Georgia State Patrol warned students they would be arrested if they didn’t leave immediately.

The students filed out.

“My heart was racing just because the police were like, ready,” said Arizbeth Sanchez standing on the sidewalk afterward. Sanchez twice risked arrest at previous Freedom University actions, though she was never charged. Now, she said, under President Donald Trump, going to jail is too risky. It could mean deportation.

But not everyone agrees that excluding undocumented students from some colleges and making them pay more is reminiscent of Jim Crow.

D.A. King, president of the Dustin Inman Society, stands on the steps of the Georgia Capitol, is shown holding a mock-up of a driver’s license he would like Georgia to require for unauthorized immigrants.Sasha Aslanian

One of Freedom University’s staunchest opponents is a man named D.A. King. He runs an advocacy group called the Dustin Inman Society that favors strict enforcement of immigration laws. The group is named for a Georgia teen who was killed in a car accident by an unauthorized immigrant in 2000.

King vehemently rejects the parallel that Freedom University draws to the civil rights movement. “For people to take the struggle of black Americans to obtain their constitutional rights and compare it to illegal aliens demanding amnesty and access to America that they do not deserve or nor have they earned makes me sick to my stomach,” said King.

A member of King’s advocacy group agrees. Inger Eberhart was born in Atlanta a decade after Charles Black’s arrest after trying to desegregate the train station.

Inger Eberhart, who serves on the board of advisors for the Dustin Inman Society, disagrees with Freedom University’s stance that Georgia’s restrictions on undocumented students have created a modern era of educational segregation. Sasha Aslanian

“Civil rights, in my opinion,” said Eberhart, “is about accepting people for … things that they can’t change.” In her view, immigration status is not akin to race. “Civil rights was about women getting the vote, for example. African Americans being able to go against the Jim Crow laws, that sort of thing. This isn’t a civil right. They’re not citizens."

Eberhart says undocumented students in Georgia pay more for college, and, rightfully so.

Arturo Martinez, the young man doing construction work with his dad, is now part of a federal lawsuit challenging the nonresident tuition undocumented students must pay. People like Charles Black, the civil rights veteran, have taught him not to give up.

“They fought for what they believed was right and ended up winning,” said Martinez.

Meanwhile, some of his friends who are undocumented have left Georgia to study elsewhere in the US. To Charles Black, it’s a familiar exodus.

"The brightest blacks of two or three generations ago had to go to the Northeast to get good educations in colleges and universities. Those folk could have been here in the South, making major contributions for the South," said Black. "We’re continuing that same pattern of running people away who could be a major resource for the South."

Charles Black feels a commonality with undocumented students fighting for access to higher education. As a young man, he was barred from attending certain colleges because of his race. Sasha Aslanian
Invest in global news with heart!

The World is a nonprofit newsroom powered by listener support. When you make a recurring gift, you’re making an investment that allows The World to cover the most important international stories with nuance and care. Our listeners are at the heart of what makes The World such an invaluable source for global news. Will you create a recurring donation today to power The World all year long?