By Daisy Becerra, Photos by Andrew Renneisen, Illustrations by Adam Day Surrounded by a crowd of Georgia State University (GSU) students, angry motorists, and officers from the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia State Police Department, six undocumented youth activists from across the nation dropped a banner from the university bridge walkway onto Courtland Street—a busy one-way street in Atlanta—in April 2011. One of the biggest and most elaborate political actions in the immigrant youth justice movement, the activists protested Georgia Regents ban of undocumented youth, which barred illegal residents from the top five competitive universities in the state. They marched around the banner wearing graduation caps—representing the 65,000 undocumented high school graduates thriving in the United States today.
Arrested first, Georgina Perez, a former GSU student, led the controversial action. Over a year later, Perez has found a new home at Syracuse Univeristy. As the now 23-year-old junior sits in Goldstein Student Center, she loads a YouTube video of the day’s whirlwind events. Unease arises as she plays the clip. “I don’t watch these videos,” she says, “I feel very uncomfortable.” She watches an officer place her in handcuffs among a crowd of flashing photographers. She sits still, reliving the day her voice, once silenced as an illegal alien, released a defiant roar.
Her journey from just one of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to a leading radical activist in Atlanta, Ga. began when Perez’s single mother brought her to Los Angeles, Calif. illegally in 1992. Like most Mexican immigrants, her mother was searching for better opportunities. “She used to work days at a factory, making scrunchies so that she could provide for us,” Perez says. The pair made their way to Georgia on June 23, 2001. “I remember the exact day because it was complete culture shock,” she says. “I cried when I came to Georgia. I hated the quiet.”
Amidst the upheaval, Perez clung tightly to her lifelong dream of attending college. After excelling in high school, GSU accepted her, but the reality of living without the rights and privileges of a legal U.S. citizen set in fast. Restricted from any state financial aid, Georgina took one semester off to work full-time and enrolled in classes the next. But her hard work came to an abrupt end: the enactment of the Georgia Regents ban of undocumented youth on Oct. 13, 2010 barred Perez from enrolling for another semester. “I was completely heartbroken, because the only reason I wanted to finish school was for my mom,” she says.
According to Kevin R. Johnson, dean and Mabie-Apallas Pprofessor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies at the University of California at Davis School of Law, the ban represents a long line of policies implemented by states like Alabama and Georgia that deny undocumented students access to higher education. “It’s a troubling development because these youths came here as children,” Johnson says. “We provided them with a K through 12 education, and we invested in them, and then we’re cutting them off from any further investment and any further benefit they can do to the American economy.” Johnson, who also runs ImmigrationProf, a blog dedicated to immigration law continues, “It’s short sighted to deny students who have staked a claim here and can contribute here access on the same terms as other residents to public universities.”
The blow left Perez wounded but not broken. “I never doubted that I would graduate from my high school,” she says. “I never had a second thought of ‘Maybe one day.’ No, I was going to go to college. That was set.” Perez transformed her desperation into full-blown activism, using anger as an outlet for change. “I said ‘Fine, I’ll just organize whatever. I don’t need school.’ So that’s where I got a lot of my experience, through community organizing and doing civil disobedience actions,” Perez explains. Today, surrounded by SU students chatting across tables and textbooks, Perez rubs the dark circles under her eyes after a night of intense studying. She looks through her résumé on her laptop. The list points out fragments of Perez’s life spent on the frontlines of action: graduated from high school in May 2007, became a full-time worker at the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) in January 2011, created the Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance (GUYA) in April 2011, arrested that same month, accepted into Freedom University in 2011, and enrolled at Syracuse University in 2012.
The road to Freedom University, an organization created by five professors at the University of Georgia (UGA) months after Perez’s Courtland Street rally, is most significant among Perez’s long list of exhaustive political efforts—one that would eventually hand her the education she desperately fought for. Formed in 2011 in Athens, Ga., Freedom University serves undocumented students, and was named after the alternative free schools created during the civil rights movement in the 1960s for African-American students. As one of the first cohorts of 40 students invited to attend the organization’s weekly college-level Sunday courses, which cover subjects from Latin American history to literature, Perez finally received a free chance at an education. Betina Kaplan, a Spanish professor at UGA, and one of Freedom University's founders, observed Perez’s hardened perspective on immigrant rights, as well as her admirable sense of dignity during the organization’s first meeting. “I remember in the first meeting, one student from Athens, after listening to Georgina, said, ‘You know I really want to be like you,’ and my thought in the meeting was ‘Me too,’” Kaplan says. “When I grow up I want to be just like Georgina.”
After spending months in the Freedom University classroom, the organization’s expansive board of advisors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz and professors from Yale and Brown, offered Perez a new opportunity. From 2011 to 2012, Freedom University transfered students from their makeshift classroom to the hallways of accredited schools across the nation. Chandra Mohanty, a women’s and gender studies professor at SU and an active member of Freedom University’s board of advisors, successfully transferred three students to SU, including Perez.
As a dual major in Latin American studies and women’s and gender studies, Perez feels a million miles away from the political turmoil in Georgia that brought her here, but daily Facebook updates of deportation alerts, lower-priority cases, and unjustifiable detainments keep her in the loop. Last month, the case of Miguel Antonio, a detained father, remained at the top of her feed, along with a number for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent and a ready-made script asking for Antonio’s release. “Can you please make a 30-second call on behalf of Miguel?” it read. Days after he was released, Perez posted a celebratory status.
Cases like Antonio’s influenced Perez’s final project for her Latina feminist theories class, something she hoped would inspire activism at SU. Months earlier, she shares her own plight with the class. The tenth person to speak, she shifts slightly and moves forward in her desk chair as she clasps her hands. With her brown hair pulled tightly into a bun, she smiles. “Hey guys, my name is Georgina Perez and I, um, actually forgot to bring something in,” professor Jackie Cuevas quickly mouths a silent “It’s okay” two seats down.
“But I’m actually wearing a shirt that’s kind of like a cultural artifact,” she says. “It kind of represents, I guess, all of this.” She motions across the white graphic letters juxtaposed against her black T-shirt.
Two days before, Cuevas asked the class to bring in a cultural artifact which represented a personal journey. So far, 10 students have become five-minute storytellers, relaying stories about Mami’s homecooked paella and holding up tribal-printed pencil cases reminiscent of traditional garbs seen in old family photos. Their voices quiver in the midst of their life stories, and the watchful silence breaks into occasional sighing, squeaky chair shifting, and chin-in-hand dozing off.
Perez moves forward to show the letters on her black T-shirt. The words “I am undocumented,” broken apart syllable by syllable lay across her chest.
While her classmates were moved by her journey, her outspoken attitude about activism remains at odds with much of the SU student body. With her past rooted in activism, it’s difficult connecting with peers who cannot understand the political upheaval that defines her life. “I don’t think people care. I don’t think I get anything out of it. With the students here? I don’t think they really care,” Perez says.
According to Mohanty, Perez’s lack of connection with fellow classmates makes sense. For an undocumented student like Perez, activism is life. For most other students, life is defined by complacency. “I feel like Georgina is one of those people who have to be tough in order to make it here, because this place is not set up for supporting students like her,” Mohanty says. “It’s not like you could just go to a sorority, because people don’t get where you’re from or what you’re doing, especially if you’re an activist around these issues.”
Kaplan thinks there’s a distinct difference between UGA and Freedom University students. “They have a very clear idea of why they are in class, which is quite different from students in regular four-year universities. They know what they have to lose if they are not in class,” Kaplan says. Perez credits the success of the April 2011 Atlanta demonstration with precise planning. The group confused authorities for hours. “They fucked up because they didn’t know who could touch us,” she says. With hired lawyers on hand, extensive research on immigrant laws, and an unwavering attitude towards ICE agents while detained, Perez outsmarted the resistance. “It lasted for hours because they were freaking out. They didn’t know what to do,” Perez says with a smile and a shrug. Given the combination of fearless, tactful organizing by a nationwide network of youth-led groups, including GUYA, the potential for groundbreaking change lies in the hands of DREAMers, dedicated allies, and foot soldiers like Perez “Without grassroots pressure, President Obama and Congress are unlikely to enact any meaningful immigration reform, but the activists can’t work alone,” says César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, assistant professor at the Capital University Law School and creator of the popular blog crImmigration. “They have to have legislators who are willing to listen to what the activists are telling them to do.”
With the June 15, 2012 enactment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which promises that the government will not deport an immigrant for two years after the application is accepted. A permanent change in legislation for undocumented students across the nation may be within reach. Even with news of the Obama administration granting 154,404 DACA applications as of January Perez remains unfazed by the political change. “When I started to get involved, I did everything by law like signing petitions, writing letters—all that shit. When I saw all these senators not give a shit about us, democratic or republican, that’s when I realized, ‘Fuck this,’” Perez says.
Whether or not a change in undocumented youth policies will pass in the next year, Perez remains dedicated to finding justice for students living on the border of educational rights. As she re-watches the YouTube clip of her arrest in Goldstein her discomfort lightens as she begins to smile. “That’s the banner on the ground. See?” she asks. “It’s the crosswalk from the dining center to main campus, so everyone uses it.” She pauses, and then lets out a small laugh.
“Man, I was so good at this. I picked the place. I picked it out perfectly.”