Atlantan Jaime Rangel is heading to New Orleans next week, where an appeals court will decide the fate of an Obama-era program that allows 600,000 young, undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States.
It’s a business trip for Rangel, the Georgia immigration director for immigration policy group FWD.us, but for him, the case is personal. “I was brought to this country when I was about five months old,” Rangel told Atlanta Civic Circle. “The first steps I took as a toddler were on American soil.”
The 31-year-old is one of the 20,000 young immigrants – Latinx, Africans, Asians – in Georgia enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA. The Obama administration created the program, which marked its 10th year in June, to protect young people known as Dreamers, who came to this country as children–often as babies, from deportation and allow them work permits so they can get jobs.
Last August, a federal judge in Houston ruled that the DACA program is unlawful, saying former President Barack Obama exceeded his authority in creating it. On Wednesday, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to consider the Biden administration’s appeal to Texas’ lawsuit challenging DACA’s constitutionality.
“This one day, these three judges will have a huge impact on my life and my family. Everything I’ve worked for is in the hands of three people,” said Rangel, who immigrated with his family from Mexico.
DACA recipients have to renew their eligibility every two years (which can get costly), but the 5th Circuit could freeze renewals of DACA status and work permits if it agrees with the lower court’s decision. “Under a worst-case scenario, every DACA recipient in Georgia is at risk of losing their work permit, jobs and livelihood,” Rangel said, noting that the 5th Circuit has an “extremist” reputation.
“We’re gearing up for a Supreme Court fight next year,” he said. That will likely happen whichever way the 5th Circuit decides.
Back home in Georgia, Rangel and other Dreamers already face hurdles that U.S. citizens and green-card holders don’t have to worry about, particularly when it comes to getting a college degree.
Even though they’re graduates of Georgia high schools, and they pay state and federal taxes from working, a Georgia law bans Dreamers from attending three of the state’s top public universities: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Georgia College and State University. For the state university system’s other schools, these Georgia residents must pay out-of-state tuition.
“It’s caused a lot of financial responsibility,” Karla Rivas, who came to Georgia as a toddler with her family from Mexico, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
Rivas dreams of becoming an elementary school teacher. To do that, she and her family have shelled out over $39,000 so far, or about 13,000 a semester, for her to attend Dalton State College, where she’s a sophomore. In-state tuition at Dalton State is only about $2,000 a semester for 15 credit hours.
Living in DACA limbo is not easy, Rivas said. As a teenager, she wouldn’t go to parties with friends for fear of getting deported for infractions like drinking. She didn’t take vacations, because she worried she wouldn’t be able to get back home to Georgia.
“It takes a toll on your mental health,” she said.
State university system spokesman Lance Wallace told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email that “DACA students can attend most University System of Georgia institutions.” But, Wallace added, “The USG is required by state law to ensure that only students who can demonstrate lawful presence are eligible for certain public benefits, including in-state tuition or access to institutions that admit students on a competitive basis.”
Atlanta immigration attorney Charles Kuck, a sharp critic of Georgia’s anti-Dreamer law, told Atlanta Civic Circle that 17 states allow DACA students to pay in-state tuition through state legislation.
Meanwhile, Kuck said, students from the neighboring states of Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, and the Carolinas can pay in-state tuition to attend Georgia’s public colleges. “Which is even nuttier because they’re almost never going to stay here after they graduate,” Kuck said. “[DACA recipients] all grew up here. They all pay taxes. They all work. It’s outrageous.”
Georgia’s obdurance boils down to one thing, Kuck said. “Racism. There’s certainly no logical explanation for it. There’s certainly no monetary explanation for it.”
Kuck, who’s handled more than 100 DACA cases over the years, represented a group of Dreamers who challenged the discriminatory out-of-state tuition law in a case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2015. They lost.
In the meantime, Rangel, who is married with a young son, has spent the last six years working toward a degree in finance and economics–one class at a time–at Dalton State. He said he was offered baseball scholarships from numerous colleges, but “unfortunately, they didn’t even make a dent to the tuition.” He wasn’t eligible for federal aid because of his DACA status.
One Dreamer’s path
Marisol Estrada Cruz, who’s lived in Georgia since she was five, had to leave the state for New York to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. She paid out-of-state tuition to earn a degree from Armstrong State University in Savannah, so when Syracuse University Law School offered her a full scholarship, she took it.
“I wanted to stay in Georgia because Georgia is home,” Estrada Cruz, who’s now in her third year of law school, told Atlanta Civic Circle. “That’s where I grew up. That’s where my family is.”
After graduating from Sol C. Johnson High School’s International Baccalaureate program in Savannah, she wasn’t sure if she’d even be able to afford college. “It was heartbreaking. All of my peers were sharing their college admission letters, and I didn’t know if college was even going to be possible.”
While her friends went off to UGA, Georgia State, and Georgia Tech, Estrada Cruz stayed in Savannah and went to Armstrong State, now part of Georgia Southern University, where she graduated in three years. While in college, she worked for an orientation program helping students apply for fee waivers that “I could never apply for.” Instead, she babysat and worked in restaurants to cover her tuition.
It was around that time that Brenda Lopez Romero became the first Latina elected to the Georgia legislature. Estrada Cruz landed a job working for the state house representative, who’s now a prosecutor in Gwinnett County, and then she worked for Kuck’s law firm, Kuck Baxter Immigration Partners. That inspired her to pursue a career in public interest and civil law. “It’s pretty eye-opening to be under the Gold Dome,” she said.
“I would love to go back to Georgia,” said Estrada Cruz, who’s starting her third year in law school at Syracuse. ”But it’s like an abusive relationship.”
“I love Georgia. I consider myself a Southern peach, but Georgia doesn’t love me,” she said. “It pushes people like me out.”
Occupation: Daycare center worker
Lives in: Dalton
Arrived in the U.S.: As a toddler with her parents from Mexico City. As a teenager, Rivas didn’t go to parties for fear of getting deported for minor infractions like drinking. She didn’t take vacations because she worried about not being able to return to Georgia.
Became a DACA recipient: In 2016
College: Sophomore at Dalton State College majoring in education
Occupation: Georgia immigration director at FWD.us, a pro-immigration policy group.
Lives in: Atlanta, after growing up in Northwest Georgia
Arrived in the U.S.: At five months old with his family from Mexico.
Became a DACA recipient: In 2012, three years after graduating from Murray County High School in Chatsworth.
College: Junior at Dalton State College majoring in finance and economics
Marisol Estrada Cruz
Occupation: student, in her third year of law school at Syracuse University
Lives in: Syracuse, New York
Arrived in the U.S.: At five years old with her family from Mexico, after crossing the desert. Grew up in Savannah.
Became a DAC recipient: In 2014
College: Armstrong State University
GEORGIA’S DREAMERS AT A GLANCE:
DACA recipients in Georgia: 21,000
Eligible young Georgians who can no longer apply for DACA status: 15,000
Undocumented young adults in Georgia who could benefit from tuition equity: 30,000
States that allow in-state tuition for undocumented students: 21
Dreamers’ average age: 28
Oldest Dreamers: 41
Dreamers’ spending power : $1.3 billion
Georgia state/local taxes paid by DACA recipients & DACA-eligible people: $100 million
Georgia’s public universities that ban DACA recipients: Georgia Tech, University of Georgia, and Georgia College and State University.
Source: FWD.us., Charles Kuck of Kuck Baxter Immigration Partners, American Immigration Council.