In a Secret Classroom in Georgia, Immigrants Learn to Hope

Rich Addicks for The Chronicle

"I knew that I was undocumented," says Martín López, 21, who works as a roofer in north Georgia. "I didn't really see college as an option." Then he met a young woman who told him about some professors who were teaching college-level courses to aspiring students like him.
December 10, 2012

With no immigration papers and few job prospects, Martín López graduated from high school in 2009 and went to work as a day laborer. From the rooftops of north Georgia, he watched other people's lives unfold, while his own options seemed only to constrict. He felt invisible, angry, and stuck.

That summer, Mr. López's frustrations simmered under the Georgia sun. He had never shared his high-school classmates' optimism about the future. They talked about college and beyond. He kept quiet. "I knew that I was undocumented," he says. "I didn't really see college as an option."

As summer turned to fall, his restlessness grew intolerable. I am bound, he remembers thinking, for a lifetime of roofing. Then he spotted a sign for Atlanta Metropolitan State College, just off the interstate, and he decided to drop in. He filled out an application to enroll—nervously checking the box marked "alien nonresident"—and handed it to a clerk. As she disappeared into a back room, he held his breath.

Immigrants without documentation who have spent most of their lives in the United States face an arduous path to college. Here in Georgia, the state-university system's Board of Regents adopted a policy two years ago barring them from the five most selective public universities. At the colleges they can attend, they must pay out-of-state tuition rates. Nationally, federal student aid, including Pell Grants, and most state aid are off-limits to them; scholarships are rare.

For a while, the federal Dream Act seemed like a panacea. But in late 2010, Congress voted down the legislation, which aimed to give these youths a way to remain in the country legally while pursuing military service or an education. The bill's defeat was devastating for many of them.

Mr. López, certain that Atlanta Metropolitan would see that checked box and reject him, did get in. But he couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition, and after three semesters, he dropped out. A few weeks later, from his family's home, in Atlanta, he watched the Dream Act vote on C-Span. He then trudged down the hall to his bedroom, put on Black Sabbath's Sabotage, and listened to the album straight through. The next morning, he watched the news on the Spanish-language network Univision, and cried.

In the year that followed, Mr. López, who is now 21, became hardened to the national debate. He refused to call himself a "Dreamer." Meanwhile, legislatures in Georgia and Alabama passed strict new laws, modeled on Arizona's, that were intended to push such immigrants to "self-deport."

Mr. López, who had been brought to Georgia from Mexico as a toddler, came to resent the fact that his very existence here had become a political issue. He got involved in local groups pushing for greater opportunities for immigrants like him, and for policy changes far beyond the scope of the failed federal legislation. He designed T-shirts that proclaimed "Undocumented Rebellion." And he found comrades: In the two years since the Dream Act's defeat, a highly organized youth movement, grounded in civil disobedience, has emerged, as many young immigrants have become more open about their status.

Through those circles, Mr. López met a young woman named Georgina Perez, who told him about some professors at the University of Georgia who were teaching college-level courses to young people in his situation. Classes were free, she said. Transportation, books, supplies—everything paid for. She had been going, and with the professors' help, she had applied to Syracuse University. She was about to start her first semester there.

The free classes met on Sunday afternoons in Athens, Ms. Perez said, not far from the state flagship. The professors called the venture Freedom University. Would he like to give it a try?

"Yeah," he said. "What do I have to lose?"

In Defiance of a Ban

Young immigrants like Martín López—about 1.4 million of them nationally—are often in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Across the country, a patchwork of state laws and policies governs their access to higher education. The inconsistency stems, in part, from disagreement over whether undocumented immigrants are entitled to go to college. While states must provide elementary and secondary education to all students regardless of immigration status, beyond that there is no such guarantee.

Thirteen states have passed laws in the past decade to allow their public colleges to charge in-state tuition rates to such immigrants. But some states have gone the other way. Alabama and South Carolina have laws barring them from even enrolling at public institutions. Georgia, in addition to banning them from its top five colleges, charges them out-of-state tuition elsewhere that is more than three times the in-state rate.

Betina Kaplan, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Georgia, read in the local newspaper about the regents' ban at the state's most competitive public colleges—including hers. "This cannot be happening," she recalls thinking. "I cannot be teaching for an institution that bans part of the population."

Ms. Kaplan soon linked up with other colleagues who were disturbed by the situation: Lorgia García-Peña, an assistant professor of Spanish; Bethany Moreton, now an associate professor of history and women's studies; and Pamela Voekel, an associate professor of history. They met with advocates from the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance and local immigrant coalitions. What can we do to help? they asked.

"You're teachers," one activist said. "Why don't you just teach?"

At first they thought they'd offer just one team-taught course, meant to replicate a freshman seminar. There would be no university affiliation and no credit, just learning.

The first session was held in October 2011, in a borrowed classroom a few miles from the Georgia campus. Through the youth alliance, Facebook, and word of mouth, teenagers and twenty-somethings around north Georgia had heard about the program with the inspiring name (and, in their view, rather satisfying abbreviation). On the first day, 32 showed up.

"We handed out a syllabus that would've made some graduate students flee," says Ms. Voekel. Heavy on reading, it covered pan-American postnationalism and Chicano literature, among other subjects. But these students, she says, "they were ready."

Before long, the idea expanded to college prep. The professors and volunteer tutors helped students with college essays and SAT practice questions. Five students from that first group went on to enroll at private institutions: one at Hampshire College, in Massachusetts; one at Agnes Scott College, in Georgia; and three at Syracuse, where Ms. García-Peña had done a postdoctoral fellowship.

The professors and one employee, Allie McCullen, a recent graduate of Georgia who gets a stipend, tried both to teach and to stay afloat in a sea of details: Arrange and pay for the students' transportation, books, and standardized tests. Keep track of deadlines for applications and scholarships. Maintain a list of colleges with admissions and financial-aid policies friendly to undocumented immigrants. And above all, raise money.

This year Freedom University's format has evolved. There are about 60 students now—the majority new, some returning—and several classes lined up, in history, literature, ethnic studies, and intellectual thought. Dana Bultman, an associate professor of Spanish, has joined the four organizers.

As the project grows, attracting both attention and controversy, discussion of these immigrants' access to private colleges—and whether admissions and financial-aid policies help or hinder them—is taking root elsewhere. At Hampshire, Margaret Cerullo, a sociology professor, has raised more than $350,000 toward an endowed scholarship. A Freedom University alumnus, Gustavo Madrigal, is the current beneficiary.

"We have to raise the question of whether we want higher education to be an increasingly exclusive and elite privilege, or whether we believe it's a right," says Ms. Cerullo, who aims to raise $1-million for the scholarship fund. "This is a category of students that, at this historical moment, really challenges the boundaries of democratic inclusion, and we ought to be thinking about it."

'Like a Lifeline'

On a recent Sunday afternoon here in Athens, a couple of dozen students trickle into a classroom shortly before 1 o'clock. Unable to drive—no papers, no license—they catch rides with relatives or volunteers. A few take a bus from downtown Atlanta; the professors pay the fare.

The small room is soon full, the door open to let in a brisk breeze. On a table are pizza boxes, a few liter bottles of soda, and an apple pie. The second class of the semester is about to begin: a seminar on Latin American literature, taught in Spanish by Ms. Kaplan and Diego del Pozo, a lecturer at Georgia.

In the second row sits Martín López. Across the aisle is Joana Estrada, 19, who came to the United States as a baby and wants to join the military. Behind her sits Yovany Diaz, 21, who crossed the Rio Grande at age 8 and spent part of this past summer in a traveling protest called the UndocuBus. Near him is Mitzy Calderon, 20, a waitress who dreams of becoming a social worker. Beside her is Miriam Zuniga, 21, who's applying to college in Washington State.

And there's José Mosso, a soft-spoken young man in black Chuck Taylors who applied to Syracuse last year while attending Freedom University. He got in but said he couldn't afford to go.

In high school, Mr. Mosso, now 20, had always wanted to attend the University of Georgia. If he worked hard enough and got good grades, he remembers thinking, maybe he'd get a scholarship. It was during his senior year that the regents adopted the ban. After high school, he worked in construction while his friends posted on Facebook about leaving for college.

It was a horrible time, he says. But within a few months, he heard about Freedom University.

"I felt like they were my saviors," Mr. Mosso says. "All of my friends were starting school, and I was still working labor jobs. It was like a lifeline."

The students don't care that the classes aren't for credit, he says. "They come here simply to learn."

At first Mr. Mosso's parents didn't want him to attend the classes; they worried that the police would show up. But the professors are vigilant about keeping their location secret.

On this Sunday, the students chatter and tease one another before their three-hour class. When Ms. Kaplan begins, they get serious. Occasional bursts of laughter, though, and the ease with which a few students offer long answers to her questions, show their comfort at being here.

The topic of discussion is a novel by the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas. Ms. Kaplan discusses the author and his political leanings: Los comprometidos, she explains, were Latin American intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s who took on class differences and other social realities in their writing. Pay attention, she urges the students, to his description of hierarchy.

Ms. Moreton, who helped teach the first course of the year, "Mexican History in a Global Context," says the instructors look for ways to help the students view their own circumstances through a historical lens.

Last year a scholar who maintains the University of Georgia's digital archive for civil-rights history came in to discuss Jim Crow laws. The students were intrigued, Ms. Moreton says. "You could see people recognize that they are actors in a very long story."

Eyeing the Future, Warily

The professors committed to Freedom University know that it has to be more than a weekly diversion. What began as a way to keep students learning has become a robust effort to get them to college, prod faculty across the country to help, and push for legislative and policy reform.

As the immigration debate smolders, some of the attention the project has attracted is spiteful. Hate mail has landed in the organizers' inboxes, and a Ku Klux Klan group in South Carolina singled out the program on its Web site. Faculty at Georgia have been largely supportive—the University Council, which comprises faculty, staff, and student members, passed a resolution last year opposing the regents' ban—but traction in the administration has been more elusive, the Freedom University organizers say.

Instead they focus on cultivating support elsewhere. The Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz serves on the program's 24-member Board of Advisors and has delivered guest lectures. So have leading scholars from several major research institutions, including Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, an associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut.

Some professors have asked to teach at Freedom University on their sabbaticals. Faculty and advocates in several other states have sought advice from the founding professors on how to replicate parts of the program.

The five participating professors in Georgia have chipped in thousands of dollars over the past year and a half. Beseeching friends and former colleagues to donate money or goods, they have exhausted their networks. Thanks to an Amazon wish list, a cadre of drivers to shuttle students to and from class, and the high-energy employee, Ms. McCullen, the program has thrived.

Still, the professors worry. They want to push their students, give them reasons to feel optimistic. They anticipate a time when Freedom University won't be necessary.

Last summer the Obama administration announced it would let young undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children apply for two-year stays of deportation. (Many of the Freedom University students already have.) Last month Maryland became the 13th state to guarantee in-state tuition to such immigrants among its residents, and the first to do so by popular vote.

In Pennsylvania, students at Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges who call themselves the Sudden Movement—Students for Undocumented Dreams and Decision Equity Now—are lobbying to add an "undocumented American" category to the widely used Common Application to college, and to include "undocumented status" in its nondiscrimination clause.

The climate is still charged here in Georgia, and much is at stake. Several Freedom University students speak openly of having sunk into depression after finishing high school and confronting a dead end. While most provisions of the state's immigration law are blocked for now by a federal court, some advocates fear that lawmakers may again introduce a bill that would bar undocumented immigrants from all public colleges. Despite growing opposition to the ban at the top five colleges, the regents have no plans to reconsider it.

As for Mr. López, his path remains uncertain. He is torn between continuing his education and the financial, legal, and political realities that make college seem impossible, or nearly so. And he fears that if he and other activists leave Georgia, the South will grow even more hostile to immigrants like him.

For now he is still laying roofs. On Sundays he goes to Freedom University, where the professors tell him: You should apply to college. He's thinking about it, and he'd like to go. But imagining the future is hard. Most days, he can't.

Correction (1/15/2013, 5:58 p.m.): Because of incorrect information provided by Mr. Mosso, this article originally misstated one university that had admitted him. It was Syracuse University, not Cornell University. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Correction (1/22/2013, 6:33 p.m.): This article originally misstated the nature of President Obama's decision last year to defer efforts to deport students who are in the United States illegally. The action was technically a directive from the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, not an executive order by the president. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.