At approximately 10:15 am on Tuesday, February 12, nine community leaders - including four clergy members - disrupted a Georgia Board of Regents’ public meeting in support of undocumented students banned from public universities in Georgia.
Following the opening invocation at the Board of Regents meeting, nine individuals stood up to continue the prayer in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Participants included clergy members Rev. Matthew Laney, Rev. Federico Apecena, Rev. Jonathan Rogers, and Rev. Dave Dunn. Community members included Freedom University faculty members Dr. Cindy Lutenbacher, Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, and Professor Charmaine Minniefield, and Greg Ames of the Housing Justice League. Also arrested was comedian and political satirist Jordan Klepper, who was covering the event.
Ten undocumented student leaders were also present at the meeting, identifying themselves by wearing handmade monarch butterfly wings to symbolize their identity as migrants. Faith leaders prayed that the Board of Regents would “love thy neighbor” and “welcome the stranger” by respecting the human rights and dignity of undocumented youth and repealing the state’s policies banning undocumented students from equal access to public higher education. Reverend Matt Laney, Senior Pastor at Virginia-Highland Church, began the disruption in prayer, stating, “God of all people, the State of Georgia has overcome segregation in education before, and we call upon your presence and power to move the conscience of our state to end segregation in education again today,” Georgia Capitol police arrested all nine individuals, and transported them to Fulton County Jail.
The direct action was coordinated by Freedom University, an award-winning human rights organization and freedom school for undocumented students in Atlanta. Freedom University provides undocumented students tuition-free college level classes, college application and scholarship assistance, and social movement leadership training in the Kingian tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience. Freedom University has been instrumental in creating fair admissions policies in private universities across the country and shaping the national conversation on undocumented access to higher education.
Georgia is widely recognized for having the most punitive and discriminatory laws toward undocumented students in the country. In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents passed Policy 4.1.6 and Policy 4.3.4, which ban undocumented students from admission to the state’s top five public universities and prohibit them from qualifying for in-state tuition. While 23 states grant undocumented students equal access to public universities with in-state tuition rates, Georgia is one of only three states in the country – including Alabama and South Carolina – to institute an admissions ban against undocumented students in public higher education. Georgia is the only state in the country to uphold restrictive admissions policies against students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that grants legal presence, protection from deportation, work permits, and driver’s licenses to certain undocumented youth. In November 2016, the Board of Regents removed Georgia State University and Augusta University from the five-college ban under Policy 4.1.6. In April 2017, Governor Deal signed HB 37, the “Anti-Sanctuary Campus” bill into law, making Georgia the first state to pass a law punishing private universities for protecting undocumented students. Georgia’s newly elected governor, Brian Kemp, ran his campaign on an anti-immigrant platform and was widely criticized for his campaign ad in which he stated: “I've got a big truck in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”
Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, Executive Director of Freedom University, said she was participating as an alumna of the University System of Georgia and as a teacher. “The Board of Regents’ bans on undocumented students inflict irreparable harm on undocumented youth, violate international human rights, and usher in another era of educational segregation in the South. As an alumna of the University of Georgia, I am deeply ashamed by the Board of Regents. My education at UGA taught me to respect the human rights of all people, to use my knowledge in the service of others, and to stand up against injustice. For these reasons, I am committed to teaching undocumented students in the face of these bans, and I will continue to stand up and fight alongside them until the Board of Regents repeals Policy 4.1.6 and 4.3.4.”
Arizbeth Sanchez, a DACA recipient and staff member at Freedom University, expressed her gratitude for citizens who are willing to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. “We are in a political climate where undocumented student activists are being targeted for arrest and deportation. As undocumented youth, we are risking everything to simply sit at the Board of Regents meeting. But we wanted to look at the Board members in the eye so they could see the human beings their discriminatory policies are harming. We are grateful for the faith leaders and community members who stood with us today to fight for undocumented students’ human right to education. They are embodying the idea of a beloved community and showing Georgia how to truly love one’s neighbor.”
Facebook: “Freedom U. Georgia”