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Why Colleges Should Not Enter Dangerous Terrain of Local Enforcement of Immigration Laws

Azadeh N. Shahshahani,
ACLU Foundation of Georgia
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May 28, 2010

(Originally posted on

Jessica Colotl, the 21-year-old exemplary Kennesaw State college student who fell victim to the Cobb sheriff’s abuse of the 287(g) power, which delegates some federal immigration enforcement authority to certain state and local agencies, is out on bond and hopes to restart her education soon.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office’s diversion of precious resources meant for securing public safety is case in point for why the unaccountable enforcement of immigration laws by local police in Cobb County and elsewhere in Georgia needs to end immediately.

As if this case was not proof enough about the perils of local enforcement of immigration laws, some are now calling for universities to also enter the dangerous terrain of acting as immigration police.

Undocumented college students are by and large talented high achievers who arrived in the U.S. as children because of the choices their parents made. They grew up in this country and persevered against the odds to graduate from high school and secure admission to Georgia colleges.

Our common interest in providing educational access for undocumented young people was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1982 landmark case of Plyler v. Doe, the Court held that undocumented students have an exceedingly important right to basic public education as a matter of due process and equal protection.

The court observed that denying undocumented children access to k-12 primary education “raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents.” This rationale applies with equal force to higher education, increasingly essential to an individual’s potential and opportunity.

Denying higher education access to Georgia’s undocumented students would mean failing to capitalize on the state’s investment in their k-12 education.

And denying these students access to affordable college education is short-sighted because they are likely to remain in Georgia and may well regularize their immigration status under current or future federal laws. Many of those students may one day be legal residents and citizens.

Facilitating educational access to students also promotes economic growth. College graduates who are likely to remain in Georgia earn higher wages and therefore generate significantly more in income, sales and property taxes. Their increased earning power and disposable income stimulates growth in Georgia’s economy. A better educated population also increases competitiveness in the global economy.

Allowing educational access to undocumented students is a legitimate policy choice by the state and permissible under federal law.

When the North Carolina attorney general advised the state’s community colleges that federal law required them to verify the immigration status of enrolled students, the federal Department of Homeland Security clarified in a letter that federal law did not in fact impose such a requirement. Community colleges in North Carolina have since backed off on a policy to bar undocumented students.

Jessica Colotl’s attorney described her as “an American in her heart because she believes in the values of this country.” Jessica and the thousands of undocumented youngsters in their situation who have grown up here are American.

Denying them further educational access flies in the face of the values of fundamental fairness shared by all Americans and makes no economic sense.

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