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Nine Arrested in Undocumented Student Protest

Photo credit: Laura Emiko Soltis.

Undocumented students wearing hand-painted butterfly wings were arrested Friday evening while protesting University System of Georgia policies that prevent them from attending Georgia’s top-tier colleges. 

Police received a call around 6:30 p.m. after approximately 50 student protestors refused to leave the building after it closed at 5 p.m. After several warnings, protestors begrudgingly dispersed upon the police’s arrival, except for nine students who refused to comply and were arrested, said protester Jacqueline Delgadillo. The group consisted of four undocumented student leaders and five documented allies from the University of Georgia, Kennesaw State and Freedom University. Each student was charged with one count of criminal trespassing. 

Through the Georgia Civil Disobedience Fund, a political action network, Facebook supporters raised the $13,500 needed to release all nine students the next morning.

Under Georgia Board of Regent’s Policy 4.1.6 and Policy 4.3.4, implemented in 2011, students lacking proof of citizenship are banned from attending any college that has rejected qualified students, including UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia Regents University and Georgia College and State University. 

Undocumented residents are also prohibited from receiving in-state tuition. While more than 18 states allow undocumented students to attend public universities or qualify for in-state tuition, Georgia is the only state in the country to ban students both from select universities and from paying in-state tuition rates.

To combat “a modern era of educational segregation in the South,” various human rights activists and intellectuals founded Freedom University, a tuition-free school that offers college-level classes and scholarship support to over 50 undocumented students. 

FU, whose acronym screams a not-so-subtle message to the BOR, pays homage to the underground freedom schools of Southern black communities during the civil rights movement. One in five FU students leaves with a full-ride scholarship to an out-of-state school, such as Dartmouth, Syracuse, and Tallulah universities. 

“It’s sad because there’s a brain drain from Georgia,” said Laura Emiko Soltis, executive director of FU. “We want diverse perspectives at our universities and documentation status has no basis for discrimination and segregation in the 21st Century.”

Delgadillo, an undocumented student, joined FU last year after being rejected from every college she applied to due to current BOR rules. She moved to the United States when she was three years old, and although she has spent her entire educational career in the American public school system, she is still not recognized as a legal citizen. 

“I guess I went through that denial state,” Delgadillo said. “I worked hard and applied to all the schools I wanted to go to, and the rejection was a huge slap in the face.”

Soltis, a UGA graduate and former Foundation Fellow, helped Delgadillo and other students organize Friday’s protest at UGA in the form of an integrated class. She hoped to urge UGA to “take a moral leadership position in response to modern segregation.”

Friday was also the 54th anniversary of UGA’s racial desegregation. The integrated session, attended by undocumented students and documented supporters, was held in Room 202 of Moore College. Civil rights leaders Lonnie King, Jr. and Loretta Ross led the session. Ross told the students, “You’re the ones we’ve been waiting for,” according to attendees.

A sign on the door read “Desegregation in Progress.” 

Undocumented students identified themselves by wearing monarch butterfly wings, which symbolized both their damaging lack of legal documentation and their migration to the United States from the distant lands of their heritages. 

“They wore the wings to send the message that migration is natural and beautiful and should not be a basis for discrimination or violation of basic human rights,” Soltis said.

A choir of English and Spanish voices singing, “We Shall Not be Moved” rang through the halls, according to Delgadillo. 

The students decided to sit-in and continue their protest even after the building closed. They began to write demands to President Jere Morehead, threatening not to leave until he voiced his opposition of the BOR’s restrictions. 

“We want President Moorehead to come out in opposition, because Freedom University has never done anything like this before,” Delgadillo said. “We’ve never held an integrated class in one of the universities that had banned us.” 

Morehead has said that the BOR policies on undocumented students are out of his hands.

David Williams, director of the honors program, told the protestors that he would stay in the building with them. The protestors intended to remain at Moore College all weekend in the hopes of attaining their goal, but police foiled the plan, said Soltis.

The arrested students donned their butterfly wings until they were released from jail the following morning. Supporters spread awareness by tweeting #migrationisbeautiful and #endtheban and filling their Facebook feeds with the breaking news, according to Delgadillo.

“We had allies that chose to get arrested in their opposition, which is very powerful,” Delgadillo said.