Open Letter to the Georgia Board of Regents

The following letter was composed by members of the Oconee Street UMC adult Sunday School class after completing a study on Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” The letter was sent in July 2013 to each member of the Georgia Board of Regents, and a shorter version sent to area media.

To Our Fellow Citizens on the Georgia Board of Regents:

In April 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The letter, addressed to eight white religious leaders, expressed King’s disappointment in white churches’ silence and complicity with the systemic and structural sin of segregation. King argued that segregation was killing the soul of America because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So often churches sit on the sidelines in silent witness to injustice.  We pray that all people shall be treated equally as God’s children. But from our places of comfort and privilege it is easy to stay focused on our own lives.

However, on the 50th anniversary of The Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we, the adult Sunday School class at Oconee Street United Methodist Church in Athens, Georgia, studied King’s letter for several weeks. The Spirit disturbed and moved us, and we felt called to make our own statement about a new instantiation of the injustice King decried: the segregation of Georgia’s public colleges and universities, where currently undocumented students are barred from admission at the five most selective institutions or charged prohibitive out-of-state rates at other Georgia institutions. We do not speak for our denomination nor even for our whole congregation, but as individual citizens, voters, taxpayers, and committed persons of faith. We, like King, fear that “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” In that spirit, we can be silent no longer. We have to respond, to take a written stand against undocumented youth being kept from the learning and life opportunities of Georgia’s outstanding universities. As King wrote, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Although the issues related to access to education for undocumented students are complex and wide-ranging, our focus in this letter is specifically about admittance to all public colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate for all Georgia students, regardless of documentation status. We understand legal segregation as a historical embarrassment for the South, and for Georgia in particular, and we view the current ban on undocumented students as an iteration of that same injustice, this time targeted at people of Latino/a descent. King argued that because of the failure to pass laws guaranteeing racial equality, “We realized that we were the victims of a broken promise.” Undocumented college-seeking students in Georgia also experience the devastating consequences of a broken promise.

As Georgians, as Americans, and as Christians, we call on The Board of Regents to allow students from Georgia to attend the state’s 35 public universities for in-state tuition rates regardless of documentation status. The Board of Regents’ mission statement is that “The University System of Georgia will create a more educated Georgia, well prepared for a global, technological society, by providing first-rate undergraduate and graduate education, leading-edge research, and committed public service.” Furthermore, the university system’s goal is to “ensure access to academic excellence and educational opportunities for all Georgians.” Currently, 15 states have laws permitting certain undocumented students to pay the same tuition as their classmates at public institutions of higher education (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington). According to the National Immigration Law Center (http://www.nilc.org/basic-facts-instate.html) to qualify, these states generally require that students have

  1. attended a school in the state for a certain number of years;
  2. graduated from high school in the state; and
  3. signed an affidavit stating that they have either applied to legalize their status or will do so as soon as eligible.

Immigrant students are integral members of our communities, students who have attended public schools for many years – some for their whole lives. Educators and society have told them – promised them – that if they do well in school, they will be able to go to college. Those students who have the required grades and test scores have earned the right to attend Georgia institutions of high education. One indication of this is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Federal policy. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, “An individual who has received deferred action is authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to be present in the United States, and is therefore considered by DHS to be ‘lawfully present’ during the period deferred action is in effect.”  This should satisfy the conditions of the Board of Regents Policy Manual 4.3.4 Verification of Lawful Presence at least for DACA students, and we argue, for all undocumented students who meet the three criteria stated above.

The cost of oppression cannot be ignored. The quality of our workforce is harmed when meritorious selection is based on residency, not scholastic aptitude. Our contributions to state and global economy benefit from policies of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Georgia benefits from a highly educated population in myriad ways, as emphasized in the current Complete College Georgia initiative. As stated in that document, “Georgia’s level of higher education attainment is not expected to increase without significant intervention….” Complete College Georgia goals include a 60% community college and university completion rate, up from the current rate of 42%. Part of the plan is to increase college access by implementing “Georgia Apply to College” events at high schools throughout the state. What will undocumented students do during these events? Will they be sent home, or moved to a separate and unequal room? The Board of Regents, by granting access and in-state tuition to students who are undocumented, can make a significant contribution to the goal of increasing college completion in Georgia.

As a high school student in our class shared, “I have watched helplessly as a deaf friend who speaks English, Spanish and American Sign Language, and who has worked incredibly hard during high school, be barred from the university she hoped to attend. I have seen my classmates, some of the most creative and ambitious people in my school, struggle to find an affordable post-secondary education opportunity, because they are charged out-of-state tuition. I have been struck by the worry and heartbreak that flash across the faces of classmates who are undocumented when they’re asked, ‘Where are you going to college?’ These classmates are denied opportunities to increase their intellect and positively contribute to our state and nation. This is their home. Many of them have no memories of any country but America. Although they may not yet be American citizens, they are just as American as documented citizens. They have worked for 13 years of school towards this ‘American-Dream’ that is supposed to be open to everyone, but when they try to further educate themselves, they are faced with obstacle after obstacle that would weaken the spirit of anyone. We must keep our promise.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can agree that Georgia’s history of racial discrimination makes it imperative that we do not perpetuate unjust policies. Education policies tilted to “legitimate” Georgia residency tread dangerously close to the sins of our past by linking ethnicity, even when linked only implicitly, to resource allocation. Advocating a policy position that ignores a student’s aptitude in favor of arbitrary residency determinations is not the way to promote knowledge capital in Georgia, global minded citizenry, or the love for our neighbor as ourselves that Jesus taught (and a principle that is central to most religions).

Immigration is a complicated issue with many legal considerations.  As a Sunday School group we ask you to consider the moral spirit of the law as you make education policies for undocumented youth.  The Bible, an ancient text about living in community, repeatedly advises us to take care of the “alien.”  Exodus 22:21 says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” And indeed many of us only have to look back to our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents for our own immigrant stories.  In the Gospels, as Jesus instructs us over and over to take care of each other, he repeatedly demonstrates that taking care of “your neighbor” means taking care of all people.  In Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that the way to live a moral life was to treat all people as if they were Jesus: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Let us take care of our undocumented youth as neighbors, as youth who have been embraced and raised in our public education system, as youth for whom Georgia is home.

We are aware of arguments that favor the continued segregation and exclusion of undocumented students. Some argue that if undocumented immigrants are admitted to college and pay in-state tuition, it will encourage other immigrants to come to Georgia illegally. However, the children who are seeking higher education have done nothing illegal; most were brought here as young children. Some argue that there is not enough room for all qualified Georgians in the five most competitive universities. However we admit students from all over the world to these institutions. Some argue that people in other countries have waited many years to be admitted to the United States legally, and that they will be disadvantaged by allowing current undocumented students to fill the small quota of immigrants allowed from many countries, especially Mexico and those in Central and South America. However, the wait is often 10 years or more, and most applications are denied; a whole generation of children who have lived in America most of their lives would lose the right to a college education. Some argue that only the children of taxpayers should go to college. But immigrants who came to Georgia for a better life for their children not only contributed to the work force, they pay taxes into the system that supports higher education.

If Georgia’s educational system does not make good on the promise of education for all residents, it will neglect its mission, forfeit the respect of our young people, and be dismissed as an unjust system. Young people’s disillusionment with the inequities of higher education has made many, citizen and non-citizen alike, distrustful of the system.

Thank you for your commitment to excellence in higher education in Georgia. Many of us are educators, and all of us are affected by the quality of higher education as parents, employers, and citizens. We look forward to dialogue with you, and to the lifting of the dark cloud of segregation that once again hovers over our state.

Yours for the cause of excellence and equity,

The Adult Sunday School Class of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, Athens Georgia, and Like-minded Members of the Congregation

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