By Alberto Feregrino
Gwinnett, Ga.––Gwinnett area Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients face financial hurdles due to their immigration status as Georgia’s laws continue to curb some of the program’s benefits that would help integrate these young immigrants into their communities.
Christian Olvera, a recent Georgia State University graduate, expressed his frustration when he encountered how costly his tuition rate would be when he applied as a DACA student. “I had to pay as an international student, which was ridiculously expensive,” Christian said.
Georgia law currently prohibits DACA students from qualifying for in-state tuition rates at any of the public colleges that are part of the University System of Georgia, meaning they must pay the out-of-state rate if they want to attend a public college, which is often twice as expensive.
Christian immigrated from Mexico with his parents to Georgia when he was five years old, living in Gwinnett since. He wasn’t too aware of his status until he began thinking about college in high school.
“One of the first things that I noticed was that I wasn’t able to apply to certain scholarships because you need to be a [U.S.] citizen,” Christian recalled. “You’re frustrated because you grow up in the state, and you give it your all.”
Although the current state policy may discourage many DACA students seeking to enroll in a college, DACA’s work permit has provided others the opportunity to obtain lawful employment.
Twenty-one-year-old Andrea Martinez is one of those DACA recipients who took advantage of DACA’s work permit. She immigrated from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, with her parents when she was five years old.
Her mother, 38, has been living in Gwinnett as undocumented for the past 17 years. A mother of five, Andrea is her oldest daughter and the only one born in Mexico.
She’s content that Andrea can work legally, saying, “she was able to work at a store, and didn’t have to work somewhere more difficult, somewhere more laborious.”
Yet, Andrea’s mother notes the differences that having citizenship creates, acknowledging, “my other daughters have more opportunities because they were born here.”
Before obtaining DACA, Christian realized the types of limits to his opportunities. “I think it was in high school when I started seeing that people were able to work, and I wanted to work as well to help the family out, and people around me were getting licenses, and in order to get to work, you need a car, you need to drive, so I noticed I couldn’t get a license or a job either,” Christian said.
While legislative debates remain ongoing, DACA recipients like Christian and Andrea have long established their lives in Gwinnett. Of Andrea, her mother said, “She’s all grown and married now… she wouldn’t go back to Mexico, she got here when she was 5, so she’s forgotten everything about Mexico.”
Currently working as an optometry technician, Christian similarly claims Georgia as his home. “Home is somewhere where you’ve grown up,” he said, “and I would call Georgia my home. Georgia is where I have my friends, a lot of my family… where I’ve lived all my life.”
Ineligible for in-state tuition, DACA students currently pay double, or even over triple, the tuition rate compared to what their high school graduate peers will pay to attend college.
For the 2020 Fall semester, full-time students taking 14 credit hours at Georgia State pay $5,239 in tuition and fees for in-state classification, while DACA students pay $14,124, nearly triple the in-state rate.
At Georgia Gwinnett College, eligible students paid a flat rate of $2,009 for 15 credits and over for in-state tuition. Their DACA classmates paid $7,500, more than tripling their cost of attendance.
The latest estimates from the Migration Policy Institute show that Christian and Andrea are part of the 21,600 DACA recipients that live in Georgia. Currently, 14% of those DACA recipients are enrolled in a post-secondary institution, 22% are in high school, and 38% are in the labor force.
Two house bills aimed to address DACA students’ eligibility for in-state tuition, introduced in the Georgia General Assembly during the 2019-2020 Regular Session, failed to get a vote after Chuck Martin, Chair of the Higher Education Committee, declined bringing it to the house floor.
Since former President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012 to give young unauthorized immigrants a lawful status to be able to legally work and study in the U.S, states have grappled with integrating these young immigrants into their communities. For Georgia lawmakers, agreement over tuition classification for DACA students remains at a legislative standstill.
Republican Representative Kasey Carpenter sponsored HB-997 and won over some bipartisan support, introducing a set of requirements to make Dreamers eligible for in-state tuition. Without Martin’s backing, the bill missed the legislative “Crossover Day” deadline on March 12th.
Six Democratic state legislators introduced another bill with a similar framework, primarily sponsored by House Minority Leader Robert Trammell. The bill, HB-896, also saw the same fate as Carpenter’s bill.
DACA’s future remains uncertain, in Georgia and nationally. The Trump administration has attempted to dissolve the program, and DACA’s standing remained intact after a 5-4 U.S Supreme Court vote on June 18th dismissed the administration’s arguments for ending the program. The administration’s promise to continue challenging DACA and the appointment of a new Justice to the Supreme Court renew worries about the program’s future.