Freedom University students give a seminar on experience and the undocumented student movement
On Jan. 24, during Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, speakers from Freedom University, an underground school in the southern freedom tradition of achieving social and political quality, came to Lewis and Clark for a workshop on building awareness and organizing change in support of undocumented students across the country.
Freedom University’s students are undocumented students from the ages of 17-24 who are banned from public higher education in the state of Georgia. The school is a place for these students to continue their education in a safe space and includes free college level classes, college application assistance, leadership training and movement skill building.
22-year-old Arizabeth Sanchez is one of these students. Sanchez moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 6 years old and has been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Growing up as an undocumented person in the U.S., Sanchez’s experiences after graduating high school have been different than the average teenager.
“I always knew I was undocumented so I knew that there were going to be things as soon as I got out of high school that I wasn’t going to be able to do,” Sanchez said. “So those teenage years I knew I was sort of an outsider community-wise. But besides knowing I was undocumented it was pretty normal. Well, as normal as it can be for an undocumented person. I guess we did have to grow up a lot faster just translating for our parents, having to take home all certain bills and stuff like that.”
The state of Georgia is one of the hardest places to grow up as an undocumented student. The Georgia Board of Regents’ Policy 4.1.6 and 4.3.4 ban DACA students’ eligibility for admission to Georgia’s top five public universities and in-state tuition rates.
Undocumented people with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are eligible for in-state tuition in only select states. But with high application fees and strict requirements, DACA isn’t a reliable source for many. After graduating high school in 2012, Sanchez was able to achieve DACA status and go straight into the workforce.
“I work at Petsmart and to me that’s a really fulfilling job because I’ve always loved animals,” Sanchez said. “Since you can’t go into college your job sort of determines the future of your life. And not in a bad way, my parents always compare me to my sister. She’s a really good waitress and always gets good tips so she’s able to earn more. Right now she’s taking classes at schools that we’re not banned from, but she has to pay international fees. It’s extremely expensive and she’s taking only one class at a time each semester. It’s like absolute shit obviously.”
“But I’m very happy at work, but yet don’t earn enough,” Sanchez said. “You’re stuck and in Georgia where you’re not allowed to go to higher education to further our lives, it completely makes us stuck in this low-wage labor pool. That’s it, we’re just labor. That’s what it feels like after graduation and being banned from the colleges.”
Sanchez grew up alienating herself from her own community—having to lie to her friends and not going out because her parents told her that driving wasn’t worth the risk. The police in Georgia are devoted to working with ICE. So, the police can instantly turn undocumented people in to immigration.
“Undocumented people don’t really congregate,” Sanchez said. “When you’re undocumented you just kind of stay by yourself and you don’t share that experience with anybody else.”
Since Sanchez discovered Freedom University, for the first time she was able to be in a space where everyone was undocumented. She has become a leader helping other students in her school and participating in actions in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I feel as a veteran, I’ve been here a few years, my role is to sort of guide people,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been to a few actions. I inform the newer students and raise their consciousness as well about certain issues. Newer students haven’t really known the history of being undocumented, they don’t really know the currentization[sic] behind the “I” word [students prior to attending Freedom often call themselves “illegals”], certain things like raising their consciousness and their ability to humanize themselves. So for me that’s sort of what I see as my role at Freedom University as a part of a whole.”
Sanchez shared her experiences at the Organizing for Change workshop along with a fellow undocumented student and the Director of Freedom University Laura Emiko Soltis. On creating awareness of undocumented students and emulating change, Soltis has ideas on what private colleges like LC can do.
“What students and universities can do is make sure that their admissions policies are welcoming of undocumented students,” Soltis said. “So recognizing that it’s not just domestic or international, but that there’s a real third category of students and to treat undocumented students who might meet state residency requirements or pay state taxes to treat them as domestic students.”
“Coming up with solutions for providing financial aid can come through private donations, from student initiatives to do fees and raise scholarship money, to working with private donors who are looking for colleges to partner with where they have the money but are looking for colleges to accept undocumented students.”
The workshop has sparked interest in getting undocumented students to campus, especially since there aren’t many at LC. However, the topic of financial support for undocumented students still remains to be one of LC’s biggest issues in getting these students onto campus and was also one of the reasons why the administration hesitated to call the school a sanctuary campus.
With new funding ideas from the workshop, Elliott Young, Professor of History and Director of Ethnic Studies, has started working on contacting programs that would partner with LC and is waiting to hear back from them. The Ethnic Studies department has also created a class this semester to continue to spread awareness.
“It wouldn’t be a four-credit class, but I think with what’s going on in the country now it would be useful for students to reflect on past examples in the United States and in other countries on civil disobedience and protest movements as well as to connect students to local activist organizations,” Young said. “So the workshop has the goal of both having students and faculty and whoever else who wants to join to theoretically reflect on these issues of protesting, but also the practical and of connecting to local organizations that are doing this work.”
The first class session with begin Feb. 9, from 5-6:30 p.m. in Miller 210 and is open to students, faculty, staff and the public. There will be over 20 professors facilitating the conversations and will provide suggested readings. The class is meant to be active and participants are encouraged to add resources and materials to the curriculum.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. This year, 65,000 of those undocumented immigrants will graduate high school. Now more than ever, it’s important that colleges make higher education available for undocumented students.
“We don’t need permission from authorities to do this,” Soltis said. “This is about education, which is a universal human right.”