An Underground College for Undocumented Immigrants
Melissa and Ashley, identical twins from Georgia, shared a bedroom while growing up. They had the same best friend, took classes together in high school, and dreamed of becoming artists in their own collective. “We’re like two different people with one brain,” Melissa liked to say.
In the spring of 2011, during their junior year, they decided to apply to college in their usual way—in tandem. The University of Georgia, in Athens, the state’s flagship university, was their first choice. “All my life, I knew I wanted to go to college, even before I understood what that would entail,” Ashley said. “My parents didn’t go to college, so they didn’t know how to navigate all this. We had to figure out the process for ourselves.” As soon as they started filling out the application online, however, they encountered a problem. The second page of the Web site wouldn’t load.
Ashley called the university’s admissions office to see if the site had crashed. The receptionist, who spoke in a treacly drawl, directed her to a question on the first page, which asked if the applicant was a United States citizen.
“It should say ‘yes’—is that what you put?” she asked.
“We’re sort of in limbo at the moment,” Ashley replied. When the twins were six years old, they moved from Mexico with their parents and older sister to the suburbs of Atlanta. Victor and Verónica, their father and mother, came to Georgia legally to work in the construction boom of the mid-nineties. In 2010, they applied for permanent residency, but a year later they still hadn’t received a response.
“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetie,” the receptionist said. “It probably has to do with that.”
Ashley and Melissa didn’t know it, but the year before, the Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the university system, had instituted a policy barring undocumented students from the state’s top five public schools. Georgia had thirty-five public colleges, serving about three hundred and ten thousand students, of whom some five hundred were undocumented; only twenty-nine undocumented students were enrolled at the top five schools. Nevertheless, the state legislature wanted the Board of Regents to send a message. As a state senator’s spokesman said, “We can’t afford to have illegal immigrants taking a taxpayer-subsidized spot in our colleges.” Two other states—South Carolina and Alabama—ban undocumented students from public universities.
Each year, about three thousand undocumented students graduate from high school in Georgia, but their opportunities for college are severely limited. At the public universities they’re still allowed to attend, they must pay out-of-state tuition, more than double what state residents pay. To matriculate at private colleges, they have to apply as international students, and often that doesn’t allow them to qualify for the financial aid they may need. Many of them have given up on applying altogether.
“I always just lived my life normally, until I tried to do stuff and couldn’t,” Melissa told me. She and Ashley are short, with round faces and dark eyes, and have a laid-back manner that often tips into reserve, except when they talk about their situation, which they do in chatty, almost lighthearted tones. The college application was like the driver’s license they couldn’t get, or the work permit for which they didn’t qualify. The twins were used to improvising, and they decided to delay applying until their legal status was clarified.
On a winter day midway through the girls’ senior year, their parents received a letter from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, telling them, without explanation, that their residency application had been denied. In the next several hours, huddled in the living room, the family made a plan. Melissa and Ashley would graduate from high school; then the family would decide whether to stay in the country illegally or leave for Mexico.
An order of deportation came in the mail a few weeks later. In an apparent error, it was addressed only to their older sister, Melanie. The letter told her to leave the U.S. by June 15, 2012. Unsure what to do, the family waited, hoping that Melanie had been singled out by mistake. Then, on the day she was supposed to leave, President Obama announced that he was issuing an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (daca), which suspended the deportations of young people who had come to the U.S. as children. Melissa, Ashley, and Melanie would be allowed to stay, for the time being, but their parents’ position had not changed.
Around that time, Verónica saw a post on a friend’s Facebook page that mentioned Freedom University, in Athens, minutes away from the University of Georgia. It was a school for undocumented students who had been shut out of the public universities, offering free college-level instruction once a week. The school’s exact location was secret, because Ku Klux Klansmen had threatened to break up classes and alert immigration authorities. The school’s scrappy unconventionality attracted Ashley and Melissa; their friends were preparing for college, and the twins were restless to get on with their own educations. They filled out applications on the school’s Web site and submitted short personal statements about why they wanted to attend. Soon afterward, they were accepted, and received e-mails with the address and their class schedules. One Sunday morning in August, Verónica drove Melissa and Ashley an hour east for their first day at Freedom University. In the car, they chatted nervously about what awaited them. “Who gets undocumented students all together?” Melissa remembered thinking. “This almost sounds like a setup.”
The University of Georgia, in Athens, did not accept black students until 1961. The following year, in an effort to maintain segregation, the state spent four hundred and fifty thousand dollars on grants and scholarships to send black students from Georgia to institutions in other states. Among the last schools to desegregate were the five universities that now barred undocumented students. “I see history repeating itself here,” Erroll Davis, a former chancellor of the state university system and superintendent of Atlanta’s public schools, told the local press. Davis had implemented the 2010 ban, but he said that he had little choice in the matter. Republican state legislators had threatened to pass an even harsher measure if the board failed to act. Referring to his former students in the public schools, Davis said to me, “All told, you spend over a hundred thousand dollars on them, and then you tell them they can’t go to college in Georgia?”
In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, school systems remained segregated, and black institutions were drastically underfunded. Between 1954 and 1965, black children in Mississippi made up fifty-seven per cent of school-aged students, but received only thirteen per cent of the state’s spending on education. Throughout the South, civil-rights activists created informal institutions, called freedom schools, to educate and organize students in desperate need of academic support.
In Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959, the local government shut down the public-school system in order to resist integration. Freedom schools, also called training centers, sprang up in storefronts, back yards, and church basements. They educated roughly six hundred and fifty black students, providing them with courses in black history, the arts, and current events. In 1961, activists in McComb, Mississippi, founded Nonviolent High—which held classes at an office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—so that a hundred students who had been expelled from public school for protesting segregation could study algebra, English, physics, geometry, and French.
Many of the teachers at freedom schools were white college students from the Northeast. In 1964, during the Freedom Summer voter-registration drive, Mark Levy came from Queens College, in New York, to work at a school in Meridian, Mississippi. “Many of us wouldn’t know how to survive down there, but these kids were survivors,” he told me. “We had to internalize that as teachers.” Their authority assumed a different cast. As Jon Hale, a historian at the College of Charleston and a scholar of the freedom-school movement, said, “There’s always this question of who has more knowledge. The teachers may know more about a particular subject, but they don’t necessarily have the relevant life experience.” Levy saw his role as encouraging students to become leaders, rather than as imposing a set curriculum. “We’d ask, ‘If your goal is to fight segregation, what do you want that white society has—and what don’t you want?’ ” Students requested specific courses of study, performed plays, and published their own newspapers; after classes, they organized sit-ins. “They were all told at school in Meridian that they would be suspended if they were caught at a freedom school, but they came anyway,” Levy said.
In April, 2011, seven undocumented student activists were arrested for blocking traffic on Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard in Atlanta while protesting the Board of Regents’ policy. John Lewis, the local United States representative and a veteran of the civil-rights movement, encouraged the protesters. “I was beaten, left bloody, but I didn’t give up,” he told them. “And you must not give up.”
Four humanities professors at the University of Georgia—Lorgia García-Peña, Pamela Voekel, Betina Kaplan, and Bethany Moreton—wanted to help fight the ban. They contacted the leaders of a group in Atlanta called the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance. At the time, guya was focussed on the arduous work of fighting individual deportation orders. One member told me, “Out of eleven hundred deportations a day, we could stop maybe one or two a month.” Having the support of professors from the state’s most prestigious public university was both a validation and an opportunity.
That summer, the professors met with some guya representatives in a seminar room at the university’s Spanish department. Keish Kim, a bespectacled nineteen-year-old from Korea, told the group, “What we really want is to be able to be students. The state has stripped that identity from us.” Another activist, a nineteen-year-old named Gustavo Madrigal, had graduated from high school two years earlier and begun working four jobs, each paying less than minimum wage, to save up for out-of-state tuition at the University of Georgia. The ban blindsided him. “The premise of the Board of Regents’ policy was that we were taking someone else’s place and doing nothing with it,” he said. That struck him as ironic: because of the out-of-state-tuition law, he was actually subsidizing the cost of college for state residents. He also resented the insinuation about his scholastic ambition. “We needed the rigor of a college class, because that’s where we wanted to be.” The group agreed that the professors had a role to play as educators, and together they decided to start a freedom school to help fill the academic void. By consensus, the group chose the name Freedom University. It recalled the activism of the past, and, on T-shirts, it also made for a gratifying taunt: “F.U. Georgia.”
A few weeks later, the organizers began recruiting students, posting notices on Facebook and in Spanish and English newspapers. An activist named Beto Mendoza knocked on doors in the trailer parks on the outskirts of Athens, where many undocumented families lived, to speak to parents of prospective students. Almost a hundred students applied for some thirty places.
The viability of Freedom University would depend on two factors: money for school supplies and drivers to take students to school from across the state. Under a national immigration policy called Secure Communities, authorities could deport undocumented people who were arrested for petty crimes. Since the students weren’t eligible for driver’s licenses, they ran the risk of deportation anytime they got behind the wheel. An Athens-based organizer named Linda Lloyd, who led a group of predominantly black labor activists called the Economic Justice Coalition, offered to help. Lloyd’s work centered on registering voters and pushing for wage increases, and she was convinced that the fates of black and Latino workers were intertwined. “While we were advocating for a living wage, we found that Hispanic laborers were working for less than the minimum wage. So we started keying in on immigrants’ rights,” she told me. The stories of deportations that broke up immigrant families reminded her of how families had been split during slavery. When she heard about Freedom University, she offered the Economic Justice Coalition as a clearing house for donations, since it was already established as a nonprofit. She also helped raise money for gas cards and enlisted volunteer drivers. Pamela Voekel told me that they needed a network of people who could arrange door-to-door pickup. They modelled their system on one developed during the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1955 and 1956.
In August, the founders held a rally at the University of Georgia, under an arch at the center of campus, to launch Freedom University. Three hundred people turned up, and the new students wore caps and gowns to simulate a graduation. Madrigal, dressed in a green satin robe, gave a speech in which he described his trip from Mexico to the United States, when he was nine years old. He and his family had been kidnapped and robbed by marauding gangs, and his mother had nearly died from dehydration. “Why am I sharing this with you?” he asked. “It’s not to gain your sympathy but to obtain your support.” The inauguration of Freedom University coincided with an anniversary: the University of Georgia’s fiftieth year with an integrated student body, which was being marked on campus by a series of events called Celebrating Courage.
When Melissa and Ashley arrived at Freedom University, the school’s organizers were still receiving menacing phone calls from anonymous vigilantes, so there were no signs posted outside. All the twins saw was a squat red brick building with green shutters, the home of a Latino community center that was lending its space.
Inside, next to a small kitchen, was a classroom, where twenty students were gathered around a table. About fifteen others sat on chairs behind them, with notebooks on their laps. The air was hot and stale, and a small fan rattled in the corner. Voekel was giving a lecture about the pre-colonial Americas. “There was such excitement that students were practically talking over each other,” she told me. “You’d ask a question and it was like getting hit by a wall.” There were classes on racial identity in America and on semiotics and literature, and eventually there was a debate team.
As the lecture went on, the twins exchanged furtive glances. “In high school, there’d be a slide show, and you’d take practice tests,” Melissa said. “Then you’d have the real test and see how well you knew the material the teacher had just given you.” Her A.P. American-history class had been a rote recapitulation of American achievements, whereas Voekel encouraged the students to question everything they’d heard in school. “It wasn’t her saying, ‘Hernán Cortés discovered the savages,’ ” Melissa said. “These explorers weren’t saviors. They came and destroyed communities. I thought, Is she allowed to say this? Are we breaking some rules here?”
When they weren’t in class, the students at Freedom University worked at fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and construction sites. “Under the circumstances, there was this understanding that attending Freedom U. and being in the classroom was a revolutionary action,” Melissa said. In a small room next to the kitchen was a makeshift nursery, where some of the students brought their children or younger siblings to play while their partners or parents were working. During a break, Ashley and Melissa milled around, eating pizza off paper plates, too timid at first to approach the other students. But the daca policy, which had just been introduced, gave the newcomers something to talk about. “You’d say, ‘Hi, I’m So-and-So. Have you submitted your daca application yet?’ ” Ashley told me. “It was the icebreaker.”
“You learn about your status as an undocumented person, and it’s no longer, like, Oh, I deserve this, because my family came here illegally,” Melissa said. She hadn’t realized how controversial the term “illegal immigrant” was until someone admonished her for using it in class. She was floored by the idea that such labels had turbulent histories. In one book she was assigned, “Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal,” by Aviva Chomsky, she came across the following sentence: “Illegality as we know it today came into existence after 1965,” when Congress overhauled the national immigration laws.
From the earliest days of Freedom University, a group of students held protests, called “actions,” at public universities and at the offices of the Board of Regents. At first, Melissa and Ashley declined to participate. The demonstrations sometimes resulted in arrests, and, during their first year, they didn’t yet have daca protection. Verónica made them promise not to get in trouble. They tended to keep their heads down, a habit they had learned from their parents. “They are definitely the type of people who had it ingrained in them that immigrants are here to work and that anything they get, even jobs, is a kind of favor to them,” Melissa said. When I met Verónica—a warm, exuberant woman in her mid-forties—she regaled me with stories of immigrant life in Georgia as though she were telling jokes. The punch lines were barbed and frequently unsavory, but she laughed anyway, darkly amused by the daily slights she suffered. She told me that she rarely faced outright hostility while at work, however, even though her job, as a land surveyor, frequently took her to the state’s rural areas. The sight of a Mexican woman in a pickup truck was less jarring to people than seeing her at a P.T.A. meeting. She used to show up at her daughters’ school to volunteer, only to be told politely that her help wasn’t needed.
Once the twins received daca status, in 2013, they got driver’s licenses and began working legally. Melissa took a job at a McDonald’s, where one of her aunts was employed, and Ashley became a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. Verónica worried about them less, and their relationship took on a more typically American aspect: the girls became more independent and defiant. Before long, they started participating in actions, where they quickly developed a reputation for fierceness. At one event, in which students disrupted a meeting of the Board of Regents in Atlanta, Melissa accosted one gray-haired member, who was stunned to be confronted. “I’ve been here all my life,” Melissa said. “I’m a good student. I should have the chance to apply to school.” She told me later, “It was the first time I ever spoke passionately to someone who had more authority than I did.”
In the fall of 2014, Freedom University moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, in downtown Atlanta. Three of the four founding professors had left the University of Georgia to teach out of state, and they named as their successor a recent Ph.D. from Emory University, Laura Emiko Soltis, who had done fieldwork with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in Florida. Soltis, a voluble thirty-three-year-old from Minnesota, saw herself more as an activist than as an academic, and her leadership marked a shift in the school’s mission. Student activism had always been a mainstay at Freedom University, but, within two years, it became the school’s trademark. One of Soltis’s first moves was to take Melissa, Ashley, and eight other students to Jackson, Mississippi, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer. Rita Bender, who had started a community center in Mississippi in 1964 and whose husband, Michael Schwerner, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan that year, congratulated the girls on their work. “I’m one of your biggest groupies,” she said. Melissa, who’d read about Bender in class, was speechless.
The main target of the increased activism at Freedom University was the state policy. “We didn’t think the ban would last,” Lorgia García-Peña told me. “We thought we could embarrass the university presidents and regents, but they were scared of the legislature.” Melissa and Ashley grappled with feeling like two people at once: during the week, they worked minimum-wage jobs; on the weekend, they were activists spouting social theory. Their co-workers often recognized them from the local television news. “Once you have a greater knowledge of injustices happening in the world, it feels neglectful not to do anything about it,” Melissa said. “At the same time, you also have to keep living life.”
One winter afternoon, the two drove to the University of Georgia to “integrate” a classroom. Seventy professors, college students, and undocumented activists gathered as organizers delivered speeches until the building closed for the night. One of them was Lonnie King, who had led the Atlanta Student Movement, in March, 1960. As college students, he and Julian Bond, who went on to lead the N.A.A.C.P., had published a letter titled “An Appeal for Human Rights,” in which they announced their plan “to use every legal and non-violent means at our disposal to secure full citizenship.” Less than a week later, they launched sit-ins at segregated businesses throughout Atlanta. “Latinos are treated as badly as blacks,” King told the group at the university. “Oppressed communities need to come together!”
Melissa and Ashley had decided on a sisterly division of labor: if Melissa was arrested, Ashley would break the news to Verónica. When the police arrived, and ordered everyone to leave, Melissa gave her keys and backpack to Ashley and remained in the classroom. The officers led her down a back stairwell and handcuffed her wrists behind her back, while Ashley watched from outside, through a small window on the first floor. She took out her phone to film, and began chanting, “Education, not segregation!”
Every year, Melissa and Ashley would apply to college. In 2013, they got into Syracuse University, but, as undocumented applicants, they did not qualify for full financial aid, and they couldn’t afford the tuition. The following year, they applied to twenty-two schools between the two of them; the year after that, ten. They were wait-listed at Smith, Trinity, Dartmouth, and Mount Holyoke. The schools with better aid packages were also the most selective. The odds of getting in, with funding, were “like the chances of getting a hole in one in golf,” Voekel told me. Melissa said, “As each year passes, you feel less qualified. I’m still presenting this profile of me as a high-school student.”
Professors at Freedom University wrote students recommendations and gave them application advice. They called colleagues and admissions offices, even showing up in person. The strategy was imperfect and laborious, but last year six of the school’s twenty-six students received full scholarships—to Dartmouth, Eastern Connecticut State University, Hampshire, Berea, and Tougaloo. Those who didn’t get in continued their coursework at Freedom University.
A few times a year, the students went on college tours up and down the East Coast, where they were hosted by Freedom University alumni and led panels about the school. Among the students, an accidental hierarchy emerged. Those with daca identification documents could fly; the others had to stay home. Some of the unlucky ones came to resent daca for the disparity, and Melissa and Ashley always specified that they counted themselves among the “privileged.”
In Georgia, the girls gave talks at local universities, targeting campuses that were directly affected by the ban. “We don’t have actual leverage over school resources,” Melissa told me. “But students at these schools do.” Chapters of student activists cropped up at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Emory, the most distinguished private university in the state. In 2014, John Lewis delivered the commencement address at Emory. “It doesn’t make sense that we live in a country, in a society, where more than twelve million people are living in the shadows,” he said. He urged students to “get in the way and find a way; make a way out of no way.” It was what he called “getting in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Even before Lewis’s address, Emory students, working with their counterparts at Freedom University, had been meeting with the college president to press him to reconsider the admissions status of undocumented students. In 2015, the university made students with daca status eligible for full financial aid. “If it weren’t for Freedom University, that never would have happened so quickly,” John Latting, the dean of admissions, told me.
Even so, the twins’ own determination to get into college, after three years of applying, was beginning to flag. Each applied to only one school for the 2016 academic year: Melissa to Dartmouth, where Voekel taught, and Ashley to Emory, where Freedom University’s debate coach was on the faculty. Both were initially rejected. Then, one Saturday last spring, the twins were at home playing cards with Verónica when Ashley noticed a voice mail from a member of the admissions office at Emory, telling her that, after further consideration, she’d been accepted. Ashley put the phone on speaker, and the three of them danced around it together. Then Verónica asked, “Did the admissions officer say anything about Melissa?”
“I always pictured it very abstractly,” Ashley said. “If we ever got into college, it would be the both of us. I never processed that it might not be.”
On the night of the Presidential election, the twins stayed up late watching the returns, alternating between despondency and anger. Donald Trump had promised mass deportations, and he’d threatened to cancel all of Obama’s executive orders, which included daca. At 5 a.m., Ashley wrote on Facebook, “I so desperately want to hold my parents close and tell them that I love them and that I’m sorry and that it’ll be okay, even though I am in no position to make that promise.” In the morning, the family held a meeting, just as they had when their residency application was rejected. The question of whether to leave the country arose yet again; only now Ashley was nearing the end of her first semester at Emory. Once more, they decided to wait.
Melissa was working as an usher at a theme park at Stone Mountain, a massive quartz dome with a carving of three Confederate generals which had once served as a meeting place for the Klan. She was repelled by the symbolism, but she had friends at the park, and the hours were flexible; plus, she got to work with actors. “It’s the entertainment business,” she said.
One morning in November, Melissa took me to the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, a maze of streets and back alleys where she likes to wander among the sprawling murals and graffiti. As we made our way down Edgewood Avenue, she admitted that she was thinking about abandoning the idea of college and becoming an artist. Still, she said, “I talk to all my friends who are currently in college, and I know it’s the place for me. I can’t have the conversations I want to have in my home town.”
The twins still saw each other frequently, but their lives were diverging for the first time. I met Ashley for dinner one night, at an Italian bistro near campus. She wore a U.C.L.A. sweatshirt and a white headband, and had a nose ring. Over pasta, as jazz played in the background, we talked about the courses she was taking. The Presidential campaign had soured her on classes that dealt directly with current events. “No courses about race and politics right now—it’ll get too personal,” she said. Instead, she enrolled in a film survey, a sociology lecture, Portuguese, and a seminar called Cities of the Lusophone World. The classes were rigorous, but not overwhelming, and she vowed not to let her fluctuating grades be a source of stress. She was four years older than her roommate, but she had quickly fallen in with a group of friends her age, mostly upperclassmen who were activists.
Last fall, Freedom University began renting space at an Atlanta-area college from a sympathetic Latino student organization. College was now literally in sight for the undocumented students, and enrollment had reached about forty. The Sunday following my dinner with Ashley, the twins and I went to class at Freedom University, which occupies a glassed-in lounge in the middle of campus. The current students reverentially referred to them as “the elders.” The twins were slightly wary: Freedom University was changing in subtle ways. The classes were more structured than before—Soltis had expanded the curriculum to include college prep along with meditation and yoga. But, as the activism increased, the classroom discussions occasionally seemed enervated, the participants vaguely distracted. Because Soltis led the actions, the lines of authority had blurred. Her involvement was not just academic but personal, and that made some of the students resentful at times. Their leader, who was quick to applaud them for the risks they took as activists, wasn’t undocumented herself. Soltis had trained students to challenge authority, and at Freedom University, she represented the school administration.
When we arrived, a young black professor named Ryan Maltese was teaching an introductory course on American politics. Maltese, who is broad-shouldered and gregarious, had diagrammed some of the essential facts of daca on the board. A couple of students had asked what would happen if the President-elect eliminated the program, and Maltese stressed all the logistical complications involved in undoing it. The real concern, he said, was that the Georgia policy may already have prevented young immigrants from qualifying for daca, which required that applicants be enrolled in, or have graduated from, an American high school. “If the state basically says to you that college isn’t ever going to be an option, you don’t stay in high school,” he said. “You drop out and find work.”
That weekend, the Board of Regents announced that it was taking two schools off the list of banned universities: the schools had accepted a hundred per cent of the academically qualified citizen applicants, and so could now open their doors to the undocumented. The logic underlying the original policy remained unchanged, as did the law precluding in-state tuition. A Democrat on the Georgia State Senate subcommittee on higher education told me that, in the months before the Presidential election, some Republicans were reconsidering the tuition law. When Trump won, they changed their minds.
Ashley, Melissa, and I left Freedom University together around six o’clock, and went to Emory for coffee at the student center. After class, Melissa had lingered to talk to a boy she hadn’t seen in a while, and Ashley gently ribbed her. “It feels good being back,” Melissa said. “There was a time when Freedom University was taking over my life, so I had to pull back a little.” After all the actions she’d organized and the talks she’d given, she still wasn’t a freshman in college.
We wandered out to the quad. Ashley had midterms to study for, and Melissa needed to get home. The car keys were in Ashley’s dorm room, so the twins crossed campus to fetch them. They walked side by side before heading separate ways. ♦
Jonathan Blitzer is a contributing writer to newyorker.com. He has written for the magazine since 2014, and was a finalist for a 2016 Livingston Award. More
This article appears in other versions of the May 22, 2017, issue, with the headline “American Studies.”