Underground Education

My name is Emiko and I teach undocumented students at an underground freedom school in Atlanta, Georgia.

Underground schools exist in the United States because providing higher education to undocumented students, especially in the Deep South, has become a revolutionary act. In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents passed Policy 4.1.6, which bans undocumented students from the state’s top five public universities. In doing so, Georgia joined just two other states—Alabama and South Carolina—in instituting an admissions ban against undocumented students. The Board of Regents also passed Policy 4.3.4, which bars them from in-state tuition rates to all public universities. Because undocumented students are ineligible for any form of federal financial aid, this policy therefore bans them, economically, from nearly all institutions of higher education. Together, these policies are effectively ushering in a modern era of educational segregation in the Deep South.

In the face of these discriminatory bans, undocumented students immediately mobilized. In early 2011, they teamed up with four courageous professors, all of whom were women, at the University of Georgia. Together, they formed a freedom school where undocumented students could continue their education. The name, Freedom University Georgia, was chosen to honor the legacy of the Southern Freedom School tradition of the Black Freedom Movement. The students also realized the new freedom school had an acronym that never lost its humor: F.U. Georgia.

Freedom U is extremely successful at what we do: nearly one in every five students who enters our classroom banned from Georgia public universities leaves with a full merit scholarship to a college out of state. But perhaps most importantly, Freedom U serves as a vital safe space for undocumented students to learn, reclaim the dignity of their identities and experiences, and gain the courage and skills they need to lead their own freedom struggles.

At its core, Freedom University is its community of students: bright, fearless, and compassionate young people who are determined to fight for their human right to education. Justice and equality for undocumented youth and their families will come when the rest of us—people who have documents by geographical chance or historical circumstance—finally recognize their full humanity and come to see them as ourselves. By sharing just a few of their stories, it is my hope that we can all take one step closer to that end.

Photo by Gudelia Ramirez Duarte
Photo by Gudelia Ramirez Duarte
In class, Gude was a very shy student. She was so quiet, I wondered if I was failing to inspire her as a teacher. But all of us were blown away when she submitted this stunning self-portrait and poem as part of the Freedom University Photography Project, which was exhibited at Emory University in January 2014. Gude is a proud Freedom University alumna, and after winning a full scholarship to Berea College, she is now studying to become a nurse.

My name is Gude
I am from the beautiful state of Michoacan
When I was eight years old my father’s brutality drove us out of the country

My mother walked across the desert
My brother and sister followed closely behind
When they arrived, they were treated like the dirt they had walked across

Luckily for me, all I had to do was sit in a car quietly
Pretending I matched the girl in the passport photo
For that, I am now seen as a criminal

Photo by Melissa Rivas-Triana
Photo by Melissa Rivas-Triana

Melissa took this photo of her older sister, Melanie. Both received strong grades in high school and performed well on their SATs, but because of Georgia’s ban, they have worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru the past two years. Melissa and thousands of undocumented students like her are grateful for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a memorandum issued by the Obama administration in 2012. DACA allows undocumented students to receive a work permit and driver’s license. But in states like Georgia, it has recreated an entire population of young people who can drive to low-wage jobs, but who cannot go to school and cannot vote. This scenario is all too familiar in the South. This system—which some students call “The New Juan Crow”—effectively funnels thousands of undocumented students of color into an exploitable labor pool with few opportunities for economic mobility or political power. Melissa summed it up when she asked, “I can get my driver’s license, but without an education, where can I really go?”

Photos by Osvaldo Flores
Photos by Osvaldo Flores

4 Photo of Osvaldo by Osvaldo Flores
Osvaldo made these powerful photographs while participating in an immigrant rights march in Atlanta. When he presented these photos at the opening of Freedom University’s photo exhibition, he took a deep breath and told the audience that the messages on these protest signs were meaningful to him because in addition to being undocumented, he was also gay. Freedom University was a crucial space for Osvaldo because, for the first time in his life, he felt safe enough to come out twice. Osvaldo describes this as coming out of “all of the dark spaces” of his life—out of the shadows and out of the closet—in order to take pride in his full self and reclaim his dignity as a human being. Osvaldo received a full scholarship to college and is now studying International Relations.

Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
On January 9th, Freedom University students held an integrated classroom of documented and undocumented students at the University of Georgia on its 54th anniversary of racial desegregation. The class featured guest lectures by human rights activists Lonnie King and Loretta Ross. Undocumented students identified themselves by wearing homemade monarch butterfly wings, which symbolized their message: migration is beautiful. Their brave act of civil disobedience received national coverage, but here is a closer look at some of the students behind the action.

Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Arizbeth arrived in the United States when she was six years old, holding her little sister’s hand. She is a strong student who aspires to be a computer scientist, and she also identifies as a feminist and animal rights activist. Hours after this photo was taken at the action, she was one of nine students arrested for criminal trespassing and sent to Athens-Clarke County Jail.

Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Jacqueline hopes to study journalism and communications in order to shed light on local social movements around the world. For weeks prior to the action, she and her brother Sergio helped organize the planning meetings—and also spent more than ten hours cutting out cardboard butterfly wings! During the action, Jacqueline served on the media team, describing the event on camera for local news stations and writing dispatches for national news outlets.

Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Photo by Laura Emiko Soltis
Sergio is a talented lyricist and songwriter, and hopes to study music in college. He was one of the students arrested at the University of Georgia and wrote songs while he sat in jail. His mother was worried sick before the action, as she had sacrificed everything to bring their family to the United States for a better life and spent the last fifteen years hiding from police. Sergio explained to her that everything he does—including civil disobedience—honors her sacrifice. It was her bravery that gave him the courage to not only stand up for himself, but to pave a path to justice for thousands of undocumented youth coming behind him.

To learn more about Freedom University and to keep in touch, please visit www.freedomuniversitygeorgia.com, like us on Facebook at “Freedom U. Georgia,” and follow us on Twitter @FU_Georgia.

Laura Emiko Soltis, PhD, serves as the executive director of Freedom University, where she teaches human rights and documentary photography, builds bridges with documented student ally organizations, and fosters intergenerational relationships between undocumented students and SNCC veterans. Emiko graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia in 2006 and received her doctoral degree from Emory University in 2012.

01.24.15 by Laura Emiko Soltis