Marisol Estrada, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, has lived in the United States since she was 5 years old. With a dream to enter the legal profession, she studied hard, choosing at her Savannah, Georgia, high school to take the International Baccalaureate, a two-year, rigorous college preparatory program recognized by universities around the world.
For Estrada, however, the prestigious coursework wasn’t enough. While she was studying, the University of Georgia Board of Regents created a policy that bars any undocumented student from admission to six of the top state universities if a qualified citizen has been rejected in the two years prior. Nor did it matter that Estrada, who graduated high school in 2013, had received protected status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 order that shields qualifying young immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation and grants them the right to work in the United States. “It was frustrating,” says Estrada. “My peers were going to the top schools in Georgia, the same schools where my application would not even be considered.”
Also troubling, says Estrada, is the fact that even international students were not subject to such a ban. “These are students who have not grown up in the U.S. or in Georgia counties, students who have not been paying into the tax system here,” she says. “Yet they can come in and attend schools in Georgia that will not consider my application.”
“I needed to do something,” she says. So, after attracting the attention of the Mexican American Legal and Education Defense Fund, Estrada joined two other DACA recipients and sued the university, claiming that the university policy violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is preempted by federal immigration law, in this case DACA. The case is currently under appeal.
I’d have to go back to Mexico for 10 years before I could begin that process, which could take decades with the backlog.
Estrada, meanwhile, attended Armstrong State University, in Savannah, graduating early to save on tuition while working 30 hours a week doing things like babysitting, bartending, waitressing, translating, and additional on-campus jobs. In Georgia, as in more than half of U.S. states, undocumented students like Estrada must pay out-of-state tuition — three times as expensive at Armstrong — even if they are DACA recipients and grew up in the state. They are also ineligible for federal financial aid.
In addition to working and studying, Estrada interned for state Assemblywoman Brenda Lopez and was active with a local organization promoting the rights of undocumented students. Her initial goal was to someday work for the FBI, become a police officer, or work in government. But when she realized many options would not be available to her as a non-citizen, she changed course: “I decided I wanted to change policy.”
The first-generation college graduate now works at Kuck Immigration Partners, an immigration law firm in Atlanta, and hopes to attend law school. She also makes calls encouraging elected officials to pass immigration reform to protect Dreamers. In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. That announcement made for a “very dark, depressing day,” she says. “I have three younger siblings who are all American citizens, and they asked if it meant that I would be sent back to Mexico.”
“DACA was an executive order, so I always knew that it could go away at any time,” she says. “But when Trump made those statements that he loved Dreamers and would protect them, I started to think things might be OK.”
“People think because I’ve been here and paying taxes, I can just apply for citizenship. No. My next oldest sister, who is 15, would have to apply for me, and she can’t do that until she turns 21. And even then I’d have to go back to Mexico for 10 years before I could begin that process, which could take decades with the backlog.”
Think, too, she says, of how much immigrants contribute to this country and its economy. In Georgia’s First Congressional District alone, in the southeast corner of the state, where she lives, immigrants pay $240.6 million in annual taxes and hold $724 million in spending power. They are not taking jobs that natives want, she says. The district’s 37,000 foreign-born residents are more than twice as likely as the U.S.-born to lack a high school diploma — 28.6 percent compared with 12.5 percent — and are also more likely to be of working age — 73.1 percent are between the ages of 25 and 64 compared with just 50.6 percent of the U.S.-born. In a reflection of the national workforce, these foreign-born tend to take low-skilled jobs in labor-intensive industries, in agriculture, construction, and food services, for example, that employers in today’s strong economy would otherwise be unable to fill.
“It’s frustrating when people say we’re mooching off of the government, because it’s just not true,” Estrada says. “If you’re not a citizen, you’re not eligible for entitlement programs.” In addition, 90 percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older is employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year. Of those employed, 4.5 percent are entrepreneurs with a combined annual business income of $659 million, a significant boost to local economies across the country. “We are people who love this country and just want to be given the opportunity to continue living here.”
“Congress needs to act. No bill is going to be perfect, but inaction is definitely unacceptable,” Estrada says. “I know there are some people who are against DACA because it was an executive order; they need to call on their congressmen and congresswomen to make a permanent solution legislatively.”