Freedom University wasn’t meant to last this long

In October 2011, activists founded an underground school in response to policies that made it harder for undocumented students to go to college in Georgia. That stopgap—and those policies—have now been in place for a decade.

Freedom U
Arizbeth Sanchez

Photograph by Eley Photo

The days leading up to high school graduation—which, for her classmates, brought a flurry of anticipation and senioritis—felt different for 17-year-old Arizbeth Sanchez.

A month after she completed school, in June 2012, Sanchez would turn 18—which meant she would cease being an undocumented minor and become an undocumented adult. She was dreading the transition because of the uncertainty it brought: She had to find a job and, ideally, a way to go to college. People sometimes sympathize with children brought to the country by their parents without documentation, Sanchez knew, and she worried that sympathy would dry up when she came of age. But when her mother suggested she move to Mexico before her birthday, Sanchez balked. It wasn’t just that she hadn’t been there since she was six years old; it was also the language barrier. “My entire understanding of the world is in English because I went through the American education system,” she says. “I have never studied Spanish. I can speak it, but that doesn’t mean I can perfectly read it and write it.”

Sanchez had long had ideas about what the next phase of life in the U.S. would look like: During a French class her freshman year, one of her assignments was to announce what she wanted to do after graduation. She googled “best colleges in the United States” and picked number one: “Je veux aller à Harvard.” At her high school in Norcross, Sanchez took all honors classes and nine Advanced Placement (college prep) courses to make her schedule look as rigorous as possible, “so when I applied to college, I would be competitive.”

Sanchez’s mother was forced to drop out of school in Mexico at 10 years old. Growing up, she would tell Sanchez, I wasn’t able to become the person I wanted to be. But, she would add: You can become someone. That hope is what brought Sanchez’s parents to the U.S. when she was six. Her parents believed academic achievement was not just Sanchez’s path to success as an adult—it could be her path to citizenship, too. Their emphasis on education made Sanchez feel like she was trying to justify her presence in the U.S.: “If you do well, and if you show that you are a good student and you have potential, maybe, if there’s immigration reform, the United States will want to keep you.”

The state of Georgia did pass immigration legislation while Sanchez was in high school—though not the kind she’d hoped. By the time Sanchez graduated, state lawmakers and the Georgia Board of Regents had enacted a series of policies making it vastly more difficult for undocumented students to attend the state’s public colleges. One effectively required tuition costs to be dramatically higher for undocumented students than other state residents, pricing many out; another banned undocumented students from certain universities altogether. A senior in high school, Sanchez didn’t know what these changes meant for her future and was afraid to ask her counselors and risk exposing herself and her family. She decided to take a gap year and started cleaning homes and offices with her parents.

In the fall of 2013, about 18 months after Sanchez graduated, her father noticed an article in a Spanish-language newspaper about a project that had sprung up in response to the exclusionary policies: Freedom University, inspired by the civil rights–era Freedom Schools that provided political education to Black Southerners in the 1960s, was offering free college-level courses to undocumented students. He thought Freedom U might help her navigate a complicated higher-ed landscape; she thought it sounded like a sting operation.

Several months passed before she applied, hesitantly. “If this is an ICE setup,” she thought, “I’m going to be so embarrassed.” In January 2014, a volunteer drove Sanchez to her first day of class, where, to her shock, students openly discussed their immigration status. “I’d had to carry that inside of me for so long, and then to be in an environment where people were talking about it with no fear and no shame—it was liberating,” she says. “For the first time, I didn’t feel alone.”

But Freedom U was never meant to last; it was founded as a stopgap solution, in response to a set of policies so controversial that—the school’s leaders imagined—they’d soon be reversed or overturned. They haven’t been. Freedom U marks its 10-year anniversary this month. When the school opened in October 2011, professors volunteered to teach classes on Sundays from a single borrowed room in the basement of a community center in Athens. Now based in Atlanta, Freedom University today comprises numerous volunteer faculty, classes, and services to students, and it’s become a kind of training ground for human-rights activists. But Freedom U’s longevity is also indicative of how dysfunctional and intractable the United States’s immigration debate is, and how it’s left not just students but all undocumented people in the United States in limbo.

• • •

A year before the 1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta found itself behind construction schedule, facing a labor shortage, and in need of help. That’s when, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, an official from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (a precursor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) told Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta that there would be no immigration enforcement in the area until the Olympic Games were over and to “spread the word.” (“Atlanta and the federal government were willing to look the other way while immigrants—some of whom would be in the U.S. illegally—bailed the city out of a jam,” the AJC explained.) Thousands of immigrant laborers obliged and then did something the government apparently didn’t anticipate: They stayed—and their families joined them. From 1995 to 2000, the number of undocumented immigrants in Georgia increased from 55,000 to 170,000, thanks, in part, to that Olympics construction boom.

Today, about 330,000 undocumented people call Georgia home, of 11 million in the U.S. Despite longstanding efforts—and, at times, bipartisan agreement—federal lawmakers have been unable to formulate a legislative solution that would offer them a path to citizenship. In 2001, several U.S. senators introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which sought to help young people who’d been brought here under the age of 16; it’s been reintroduced several times over the last two decades but has always failed, leaving millions with limited opportunities for getting an education, entering the workforce, and achieving economic stability.

In Georgia, the plight of those brought to the U.S. as children was dramatized by the case of Jessica Colotl, a first-generation college student one semester away from graduation at Kennesaw State University. In 2010, Colotl was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. Because she was undocumented, she was also driving without a license. Police arrested and detained her and, less than 48 hours later, ICE officers were discussing her deportation.

Colotl’s sorority sisters protested. The president of KSU wrote a letter to the judge overseeing Colotl’s case and asked that she be allowed to finish her degree. Colotl spent 37 days in custody before she was released (then rearrested and released yet again), granted a one-year deportation deferral, and allowed to finish at KSU. Nationwide, the case reignited arguments for the DREAM Act. A year after Colotl’s arrest, and in part because of it, President Barack Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a legally precarious memorandum that—pending state intervention or prerogative—offers renewable two-year deportation deferrals, work permits, and drivers licenses to hundreds of thousands of young people, including Colotl.

In Georgia, the publicity around the Colotl case led to different results. In 2010, under pressure from Republican state leaders, the Georgia Board of Regents—a 19-member group appointed by the governor to oversee the University System of Georgia, a collection of 26 institutions—prohibited undocumented students from enrolling at the state’s five most competitive public colleges, including the University of Georgia at Athens and Georgia Tech. The regents also reiterated an earlier state law preventing undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition at the schools where they were allowed to enroll, meaning costs three or four times higher at some institutions. (Because of their status, undocumented students are already ineligible for state and federal aid including HOPE scholarships, Pell Grants, and federal loans.)

According to Georgia Budget and Policy Institute senior policy analyst Jennifer Lee, this effectively excluded many undocumented students from higher education in the state of Georgia.

“They put up a giant blockade,” says the immigration attorney who represented Colotl, Charles Kuck (with whom she now works as a paralegal). Kuck has advocated for in-state tuition for undocumented students for more than a decade. “It’s the literal education ‘wall’: You can go this far and no farther.”

• • •

In October 2011, four UGA professors founded Freedom University Georgia—“F.U. Georgia”—in the wake of the regents’ ban. Their decision was spurred, says cofounder Pamela Voekel, by the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance, immigrant rights activists, and undocumented youth leaders: “They were the people who insisted the professors do something.” In the beginning, the program was relatively simple, consisting of a free eight-week American Civ class organized to put students in the classroom, where they wanted to be. “But what became immediately clear to us as professors was: Here’s a group of students that want to go to college. We need to go ahead and get them out of state and get them into college so that they don’t age out,” says Voekel, who’s now an associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. “Most colleges won’t give scholarships to people that are 23, 24, 25. That became an imperative.”

Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, a human-rights educator and social-movement strategist, joined Freedom U as a volunteer faculty member in the fall of 2013. That first semester, she taught a social movements history class in Atlanta, bringing in leaders from the Black freedom movement. Learning about how young people engaged in civil disobedience during the civil rights era was a revelation for students, and seeing them interact with the leaders themselves was a revelation for Soltis. “There was potential in us being more than just a place for free classes,” she says.

By the end of spring 2014, however, three of the four founding professors had gotten jobs out of state, potentially making that semester Freedom U’s last. Even as she was applying for jobs elsewhere, Soltis took her students to the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Over the course of that trip, she decided to try to keep Freedom U running on her own (and without pay)—at first, just long enough to help her remaining students get into college. That turned into one more full semester, which turned into her becoming Freedom U’s first executive director (and only staff member for the next four years). Finally, she decided that Freedom University would stay open as long as the Board of Regents policies were in place. “I am a graduate of a University System of Georgia institution,” says Soltis, who attended UGA, then went on to earn a PhD from Emory University, writing her dissertation on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers’ movement in South Florida. “My alma mater bans my students from admission. I have a moral obligation to do something.”

She put together a board of advisers and reestablished Freedom University in Atlanta in fall 2014. Students voted on what classes they wanted to take, and Soltis found professors from nearby institutions, like Spelman and Morehouse colleges and Kennesaw State University, willing to offer part of their weekends. The work is “volunteer in spirit,” she says. Teachers come because they want to teach. And, because Freedom U is not accredited (“to ensure the anonymity of the students and maintain independence from government agencies,” Soltis explains), students come because they want to learn. By necessity, the organization serves only a couple dozen students at a time. Faculty, staff, and volunteers—some of whom, in nonpandemic times, drive students to secret, changing locations for class—require extensive training. A couple times a year, someone tries to infiltrate the organization, posing as a journalist or a potential student or volunteer.

When Soltis relaunched Freedom University, it was with a focus on human-rights education—another echo of the Black freedom struggle. “Human rights is not just a value; it’s codified in international law. This isn’t some flowery shit,” she says. What’s abstract for some is tangibly real for those routinely denied the 30 inalienable rights enumerated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.

When her class reads the declaration, Soltis asks students to make note of those violated in their daily lives; usually, she says, they highlight around 20, like Article 13 (the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country), Article 23 (the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work), and, of course, Article 26 (the right to education, including higher education, which shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit). “These are basic, fundamental, universal human rights that are being denied in the state of Georgia,” Soltis says.

In her first semester as executive director, Soltis took students on Freedom University’s first college tour, to campuses in the Northeast with more welcoming policies regarding undocumented students. For Arizbeth Sanchez, then in her second semester, it was a galvanizing experience. “I could see students walking by with their backpacks and laughing, and for the first time, I felt like this could be real,” she says. “It wasn’t just a dream in my head anymore.” She wanted to bring that back to Georgia and decided to join direct actions, organized under the auspices of Freedom University, to push for the inclusion of undocumented students on college campuses. The following January, on the 54th anniversary of the racial desegregation of the University of Georgia at Athens, Sanchez and dozens of others donned handmade cardboard monarch butterfly wings, occupied a UGA classroom, and listened to lectures given by human-rights leaders (and coconspirators) Loretta Ross and Lonnie C. King Jr. Police arrested Sanchez for the first time that night.

At Emory University, Freedom U joined forces with faculty and students to create the Freedom at Emory Initiative, aimed at changing the school’s admissions policy. The pressure paid off: In April 2015, Emory University became the first private university in the state not only to accept DACA recipients but also to allow them access to need-based financial aid. Two years later, Emory would open its doors to fully undocumented students as well. Freedom U would go on to help change admissions and financial-aid policies, and push for structural support for undocumented students, at 10 private higher-ed institutions.

Soltis calls the period between 2014 and 2016 Freedom University’s heyday of civil disobedience, inspired by a presidential administration that was theoretically more receptive to pressure from undocumented young people than administrations before (or after) and, she explains, by the fact that students with the newly announced DACA could participate in civil disobedience without threat of deportation. Freedom U has held direct actions against the Board of Regents policies 12 times over the last seven years; Sanchez was arrested at two of them. In 2018, she finished her classes and joined Freedom U as its second staff member, a part-time community-engagement coordinator.

In line with Soltis’s human-rights emphasis, the school’s work has expanded. What started as classes now comprises four pillars: the freedom school (free college-level classes, legal representation and DACA renewal fees, mental-health workshops, and emergency financial aid); educator training (for high-school counselors and higher-ed professionals); direct action (civil disobedience to educate the public and attract support); and policy change (at the local, state, and national levels).

The changes reflect the fact that Freedom University has had to be more than a school—it’s also had to support young undocumented people as they come of age facing uncertain futures, while sometimes grappling with being criminalized in the place where they’ve grown up. Simi A.—whose family traveled to Atlanta during an economic recession in Nigeria, then overstayed their visas—grew up feeling like “a fugitive in a foreign country.”

“I feel like the system is coming for me on both sides,” he says. He’s a 200-pound, 6-foot-1 Black 20-year-old with locs. “If the police show up, they’re looking at me; because of what I look like, I’m more likely to be targeted. I’m more likely to get arrested because I’m Black, and if I get arrested, I’m likely to get deported.” Attending Freedom University—even virtually, as he did during the pandemic—helped him see the connections between his experience, the experience of other undocumented students, and the civil rights activists who had come before them. “They do this to Black people, they do this to other people of color,” he says. “It’s not just about what side of the imaginary line I was born on; this struggle has been going on for a much longer time than I have been here.”

In recognition of that continuity, one of the advisers Soltis brought on was civil rights veteran Charles Black, who now chairs Freedom U’s board and says he felt “a commonality with the plight of undocumented students.” When he graduated high school, there was no university in his hometown of Miami that would enroll a Black student. He left his home to pursue higher education and ended up at Morehouse College, a student of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helping desegregate public facilities in Atlanta. “We’re all human beings,” Black says. “We all have rights inherent to our humanity that shouldn’t be legislated in and out of existence.”

Freedom U
Laura Emiko Soltis

Photograph by Eley Photo

A Republican member of the Georgia House, Kasey Carpenter represents Whitfield County, where one in three of his constituents identifies as Hispanic or Latinx and more than 6,000 are DACA recipients. Dalton High School, in the county seat, is nearly 70 percent Hispanic. Carpenter also shares territory with U.S. House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who supports—among other things—a halt to all immigration during the presidency of Joe Biden, the funding and expansion of the southern border wall, the expedited deportation of all undocumented people in the U.S., and the cancellation of DACA.

“I’ve got a really interesting dynamic up here when it comes to immigration,” Carpenter says.

In January, for the second year in a row, he introduced a House bill to allow certain DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition—sort of. House Bill 120 proposes charging them an “opportunity rate,” which can be up to 10 percent more than in-state tuition. The bill doesn’t change rates for those who don’t meet DACA’s requirements, like Simi and most undocumented people; DACA covers only a narrow band of young people brought to the U.S. under the age of 16 and before June 2007, who also meet certain continuous residency requirements. (And HB 120 applies only to DACA recipients under the age of 30, a shrinking category as time goes on.) It also doesn’t allow DACA recipients access to the colleges they’re currently barred from. Carpenter says, personally, he’d support the latter: “If a kid is smart enough to get into the University of Georgia, they should be allowed to go to Georgia,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that competition makes us all better.” But, he adds, “you have to have a conversation about what you can legitimately pass.”

Various parties disagree over whose responsibility it is to overturn the regents’ policies—which partly accounts for why they’ve been in place so long. In a written statement to Atlanta magazine, a spokesperson for the University System of Georgia says the 2010 policies were put into place to ensure compliance with state and federal laws—it was the Assembly, after all, that got things started in 2008 with its in-state tuition ban. Though, according to Kuck, the immigration attorney, the Board of Regents—which is filled with gubernatorial appointees—is “not answerable to the state legislature” and can change the policies if it chooses, at least for DACA recipients. He blames the lack of progress on “constant finger-pointing” between the legislature and the regents. “‘It’s their fault. It’s their fault. It’s their fault.’ That’s what’s extraordinarily frustrating about this,” Kuck says. “Nobody wants to take responsibility for depriving these kids of an education.”

Carpenter agrees that politicians “have used these kids as a volleyball on both sides. This is not a debate about immigration policy or the Wall. These kids are here; let’s make the best of it.”

Lee, of GBPI, says expanding access to higher ed is beneficial to workforce development and the economy. From kindergarten to 12th grade, the state invests at least $75,000 per child, documented or not—as required by a 1982 Supreme Court decision, which reasoned that denying education to a particular group of people risks creating a permanent underclass. And restricting those students from continuing on to college limits the state’s potential return on its investment, says Wes Cantrell, a Republican from Woodstock and a cosponsor of the bill: “If we allow DACA students to go in-state and graduate with meaningful degrees, they’re going to get good jobs and become productive members of society and pay more taxes.”

While Soltis wants her students to believe higher education is possible, she says, “I also make sure they know they don’t need a college degree to be worthy of respect—they, and their parents, are deserving of dignity simply because they are human beings.” That means also pushing back against what she calls the narrative of the “exceptional” DREAMer—“the 4.2 GPA valedictorian who deserves to go to college.” Students don’t need to be remarkable to be worthy of education, Soltis says: “They just need to be human.”

Policies that deprive students of their right to pursue higher education make Georgia an outlier: It’s currently one of just three states, along with Alabama and South Carolina, that actively bar undocumented students from enrolling in certain public institutions, according to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. About two dozen states provide undocumented students, regardless of DACA status, access to in-state tuition and some state financial aid or scholarships.

Even if HB 120 does pass, the fact that it applies only to DACA recipients means its impact will be limited: For one, that’s a vanishingly small cohort—according to Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, only about 12 percent of undocumented people in the United States are DACA-eligible, and just 7 percent have actually gone through the process and qualified for its protections. (Georgia is home to about 20,000 DACA recipients.) And the preceding decade of legislative stasis has caused another problem: Most DACA recipients are already in their 20s.

Both Carpenter and Cantrell, HB 120’s sponsors, agree that ultimately the onus should be on the federal government to fix the country’s broken immigration system. The DREAM Act—Laura Emiko Soltis often jokes—is now old enough to vote for itself.

• • •

With nine years gone by since she graduated from high school, Arizbeth Sanchez herself has grown further and further away from the age when most people enter undergrad. But she’s not quite ready to give up. Earlier this year, she decided to try again. Sanchez applied to Agnes Scott College and was accepted. She also received a full $230,000 scholarship, which allowed her to actually attend. She left Freedom University and started school in August.

“From the outside, it seemed like I had lost a lot of time,” she says. But she’d been polishing her public-speaking skills and representing Freedom University on campuses across the country, like UCLA and Harvard, and she was selected as a fellow for the U.S. Human Rights Network and trained at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee—the successor to the Highlander Folk School, the legendary civil rights training grounds where John Lewis ate his first integrated meal and where Martin Luther King Jr. first heard the song “We Shall Overcome.” Sanchez spent the time between high school and college, she says, “trying to make the path easier for others than it was for me.”

In her scholarship interview, when asked what she’d like to change in the world, she talked about what she’d studied, and lived, at Freedom U: “When we think about human-rights violations, we think about places outside the U.S., but, no, there are human-rights violations in the U.S.,” she explained. “As an undocumented person, I can tell you that I have faced some of these violations, and one of them is my right to education, which is why I’m here doing this interview.”

For so long, college has been the dream, the one goal toward which Sanchez has been striving. “Now that I’m here, that allows me to be like, What’s the next dream? Where will I end up? What will I be doing?” She’s comfortable not knowing, she says: “The thing that I’m most excited about is being able to continue to dream.”

This article appears in our October 2021 issue.