DREAMers in Ga. take a seat

April 11, 2011

Rebekah Ward reports on a protest by undocumented youth at an Atlanta university.

GEORGINA PEREZ stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of people in Atlanta on April 5 and proclaimed, "I am undocumented and unafraid. I will no longer wait for someone to save me while I am being denied access to an education."

She and seven other youths committed civil disobedience, blocking traffic in an intersection near Georgia State University (GSU), to shine a light on the denial of education to the undocumented.

Seven of the demonstrators were arrested and immediately questioned by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But according to the group that organized the action, The Dream is Coming, despite the protesters admitting their undocumented status, ICE chose to release the seven without an immigration hold.

At the demonstration, the youth each told the story of how they came to this country, the fear and shame of being criminalized as undocumented--and now, their determination to longer live in the shadows. They spoke of their brothers and sisters who had given up on the dream of going to college because it is out of reach, for both legal and financial reasons, for undocumented youth.

Immigrant rights activists stop traffic at a busy Atlanta intersection
Immigrant rights activists stop traffic at a busy Atlanta intersection

The civil disobedience was committed for their friends, family and communities, they said. "The only way things are going to change is if we stand up for ourselves," Georgina said.

The activists are part of a network of students who have been fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act, a federal proposal that would provide a conditional path to citizenship for some undocumented youth. But the focus of the April 5 action was on a wave of state laws being passed that further restrict access to higher education for undocumented students.

The Georgia Board of Regents voted last fall to deny undocumented students acceptance at the state's top five public schools if there is a single "academically qualified" native-born student that would be denied acceptance. With enrollment at these schools at an all-time high, this amounts to an effective ban on the undocumented.

At the same time, the state's higher education scholarship program, known as HOPE, has been targeted for devastating cutbacks. Plus, Republican lawmakers in the state legislature have introduced a slew of ugly measures--including House Bill 59 that would deny public benefits, including attendance at state colleges and universities, to anyone who can't prove their immigration status; and House Bill 87, which copies the provisions of Arizona's HB 1070 in giving law enforcement a blank check for racial profiling and harassment of immigrants.

The aim of the legislation as well as the Regents' vote is scapegoating, pure and simple--these officials hope to redirect public anger about cuts in education funding and decreasing access to college onto the most vulnerable of our student population.

THE APRIL 5 demonstration began with a rally on the GSU campus that drew out more than 100 people on short notice. The students preparing to carry out civil disobedience delivered a letter to GSU President Mark Becker, calling on him to refuse the ban on undocumented students.

The whole group then went on a short march and took to the streets right outside the GSU library, within sight of the state Capitol building. GSU students who have been fighting state budget cuts supported the action by dropping banners proclaiming the "Dreamers" statement: Undocumented and unafraid. The Dreamers then sat down in the street and refused to move.

Atlanta police appeared confused after arriving on the scene. Because they represent a city that celebrates its civil right history, they were reluctant to be caught on camera hauling protesting students off to jail. Eventually, the officers surrounded the seven youths and loaded them into the police wagon. But the activists managed to block traffic on busy Courtland Avenue for over two hours.

While staging the sit-in, students poured out of their classes to see what all the chanting was about. The crowd peaked at around 300 people. One inspiring aspect of the action was that people who came out as curious onlookers at first were leading chants by the end of the demonstrators. Some students drew parallels to other world events, calling the police "our Qaddafis" when they took the activists to the wagon.

A spirit of angry defiance dominated the event. Georgina said it best: "I will no longer sit by and watch politicians demonize us to build up their campaigns. I will no longer be apologetic for speaking my native language and for embracing my culture. I am a proud Georgian."

Though ICE has not taken action against the students for now, they still could--and they will need huge activist pressure against their deportations. In the meanwhile, supporters are raising money to help with legal costs--you can make a contribution at the Dream Activist website.

As Eva Cardenas, another Georgia activist, said, "Access to public higher education is a basic human right that must be protected by all of us. We, the youth and students, must stand up and reclaim what is rightfully ours as human beings."

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