By Sarah Fenton
Suggest that the United States is a nation of immigrants and you’ll find wide-ranging agreement. Suggest that the current US immigration system is broken: again, nods all around. Now suggest some ways to fix that system. Try proposing, for instance, a possible route forward for the 11 million people—young, old, and every age in between—living in the United States without authorization. Watch consensus crumble.
Laura Emiko Soltis has made it her life’s work to forge ahead on that route, particularly on behalf of young people, and despite the many obstacles (and lack of consensus) along the way. Soltis is a member of the faculty and executive director of Atlanta’s Freedom University, where undocumented students can take tuition-free, college-level courses on subjects from photography and graphic design to public speaking, history, and music theory. They receive assistance with the often-baffling process of applying for scholarships to universities across the country, as well as learn leadership and organization skills. Ordinary college activities, in other words, in an extraordinary context: Georgia is one of only three states (South Carolina and Alabama are the other two) that prohibit undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities.
As important as the counseling and classwork is to current Freedom University student Melissa Rivas-Triana—and make no mistake, studying Spanish literature, in Spanish, has been revelatory—it is the transformation in her sense of self that’s been most significant since she enrolled in 2012. As Rivas-Triana explained to those assembled last month at the annual meeting’s Session 55, “Students on the Front Lines: The Fight to Desegregate Public Higher Education in Georgia from the 1960s Atlanta Student Movement to the Undocumented Student Movement Today”: “As an undocumented person you feel very isolated. This is a huge secret that you can’t share. It’s not something that people talk about, even within the Latino community.” Rivas-Triana was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but raised in Snellville, Georgia, with the knowledge that (for instance) a family member “being exploited” at work could not “go to the police.” The presence of a uniformed officer did not ensure her family’s protection but underscored their vulnerability. Rivas-Triana grew up in a loving family—her mother could be seen beaming from the audience—but outside her family circle, she’d always cultivated a kind of invisibility, a desire not to stand out. No longer: coming to Freedom University meant coming “out of the shadows” and finding her voice. “I love leading chants now!”
Being what Rivas-Triana calls “undocumented, unafraid” does not mean she has nothing, in fact, to fear. This is where her commitment to “building intergenerational alliances” and her evident admiration for fellow panelist Charles Black comes in. Black arrived in Atlanta in 1958 to attend Morehouse College. By 1961—surrounded by the nuisance of segregated department stores and the specter of police brutality—he’d joined SNCC and begun helping to establish newspapers, organize sit-ins, and lead a yearlong boycott targeting segregated Atlanta establishments from the Richards Department Store to the Fox Theatre and Grady Hospital. Black needed little prompting to draw comparisons between the fight to desegregate higher education in the 1960s and the Undocumented Student Movement of today: the same five elite Georgia universities that banned African American students then ban undocumented students now. “We are all in this game together,” Black vowed with an emphatic nod at Rivas-Triana. “Get mad with those people who don’t look like you, don’t pray like you, don’t love like you.” Black has no patience for “the idea that this is a post-civil rights era,” and summarized the connection between the two movements this way: “the bottom line is we’re talking about human rights.”
If he’s right, Georgia’s undocumented student population may soon have their day in court. Soltis estimates that 6,000 undocumented students graduate from Atlanta high schools each year and she is determined to see “the school to prison pipeline” replaced “with a school to college pipeline.” She quoted from Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
- Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
No one present in Ballroom D at the Atlanta Hilton in January could doubt Melissa Rivas-Triana’s “merit.” “Emory University is my dream school,” she told us. “I hope to study Anthropology and Art History.” In April, facing pressure from Freedom University activists among others, Emory announced that beginning with the class of 2019 it would provide need-based, nongovernmental (private) financial assistance to qualified applicants. With a support system that includes a mentor like Charlie Black, a teacher like Laura Emiko Soltis, and a parent radiating pride, Rivas-Triana just might get there.
For additional coverage on Freedom University and the Undocumented Student Movement, please see Anita Casavantes Bradford’s “Freedom Dreams: The Many Uses of History in Georgia’s Ongoing Struggle for Educational Desegregation” in the December 2015 issue of Perspectives on History, and Eladio Bobadilla’s AHAToday post on new debates in immigration history at the 2016 annual meeting.