The state’s highest court on Monday ruled against a group of students who were brought to the United States illegally as children and want access to in-state tuition at Georgia’s colleges and universities.
“Hopefully, very soon, people can open their hearts and see we’re not so different,” Diana Paola Vela-Martinez, a pre-med student at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, said.
Vela-Martinez is an immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States at age 4.
She has received permission under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, established in 2012, to work, study and live here exempt from deportation.
Vela-Martinez said she just wants the same opportunities and access to affordable education as other residents of the state.
However, the state Supreme Court decision hinged not on DACA immigration status but rather on whether these recipients are legally allowed to sue the state.
A Fulton County judge, and now the court, dismissed the lawsuit against the university system’s Board of Regents saying it was barred under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which shields the state and state agencies from being sued unless the General Assembly waives that protection.
The court is severely limiting the ability to challenge the actions of unelected state officials, Charles Kuck, the immigrants’ lawyer, told the Associated Press in an emailed statement.
Vela-Martinez said she currently pays about three times more in tuition than if she were to receive in-state status.
For example, in-state tuition at UNG for 12 credit hours on an associate degree track costs about $1,225 versus $4,850 for out-of-state tuition.
The same number of credit hours on a bachelor’s degree path will cost $2,140 for in-state tuition and $7,557 for out-of-state.
Vela-Martinez said she believes in-state tuition will increase enrollment and admittance to higher education for DACA students.
The Georgia university system requires any student seeking in-state status for tuition purposes to provide verification of "lawful presence.”
The Regents have said students with temporary permission to stay under DACA do not meet that requirement.
That doesn’t mean citizens who feel they have been harmed by the illegal actions of public officials have no recourse, the opinion says, but rather that they must pursue action against those officials in their individual capacities.
Kuck said he plans to take legal action against the individual members of the Board of Regents because he believes they are failing to follow their own rules and guidelines.
While many Republican lawmakers have argued that DACA students would hurt the ability of U.S.-born residents to afford college, Vela-Martinez and others said they will pursue alternatives to reach their goal.
For example, Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said his group will seek a legislative “fix” to lower costs for DACA students.
And Vela-Martinez said the ruling will not deter her from continuing her studies and helping other DACA recipients seek higher education.
“It’s kind of disappointing to see so much hard work, so many tears go for nothing, unnoticed,” she said. “But this isn’t the end.”