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Education on hold: How Georgia has made it hard for DACA recipients to afford a college degree
As state representatives consider whether to offer in-state tuition for DACA recipients, 285 South speaks to one Dalton resident who had to choose between his own education and supporting his family.
Christian Olvera has been taking classes on and off at Dalton State College for over 13 years. And he still hasn’t graduated. The 31-year-old says he has about a year and a half left of courses before he can finally earn his undergraduate degree.
Between his job as a retail manager at AT&T and helping out with the family business, he works anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week. Finding the time to go to school is nearly impossible.“I just can’t do both,” he said.
Time wasn’t always the primary obstacle between him and a college degree. When he graduated from Dalton High School in 2010, it was money. He and his brother Bernie had done well in school, and had expected to go to college, just like their classmates. Nobody had told them how much money it would cost. “Me and my brother always focused on education, we knew that was our way into a better future…no one really prepared us for our fate,” he said.
Christian moved with his parents and brother from Mexico to Dalton, Georgia when he was 8 years old, without legal documentation. He’s one of around 20,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Georgia, a program that grants temporary protection from deportation to children who came here as undocumented immigrants, and makes it possible for them to apply for work permits.
This week, advocates are hoping there will be some movement on HB131 - legislation that would make it easier - i.e. significantly less expensive- for DACA recipients to go to certain colleges in the state. If the bill makes it to the House floor for a vote, before Monday, Crossover Day, it will go over to the Senate for consideration. And if it doesn’t, it will effectively die in this legislative session.
“We're just hopeful to get a vote this week. And we're working around the clock with our team and other recipients across the state to try to pressure lawmakers to give us a vote and the hearing,” said Jaime Rangel, a DACA recipient who testified at a recent hearing on the bill, and is also the Georgia State Immigration Director for the advocacy group Fwd.us.
Representative Long Tran, one of the sponsors of HB131 and the son of Vietnamese refugees, said on Wednesday, “It’s looking increasingly unlikely for there to be a vote in committee to advance it.” But, said the Democrat from Dunwoody, he’s “not ready to count the chickens before they hatch.”
Currently, Georgia residents who are DACA recipients have to pay out-of-state tuition to attend GA colleges - which can be up to three times higher than in state tuition. In state tuition at Dalton State College in 2022 was around $1,600 per semester, while out of state tuition was nearly $6000.
Bills similar to HB131 have circulated in the House over the last few years, but have never made it very far.
Which is why when Christian enrolled at Dalton State College in 2010, his tuition was more than twice that of his former high school classmates. His parents were running their own business - a photo and videography company that catered to the local Hispanic community - but the money they were earning still wasn’t enough for Christian to go to school for more than a single semester.
When his brother Bernie graduated two years later, things had changed. Dalton State was offering a tuition discount to DACA recipients who were enrolling in school that year, and Christian had just officially been granted DACA, which meant he could apply for a legal work permit and start earning money.
Around the same time, the apartment building where the family was renting a unit was torn down. Christian decided to use the financial credit he was building through his new legal status to help finance a home for the family. “I remember the day I told my mom. I said, Hey, school can wait. Let's find a place to live.”
His parents realized they couldn’t afford to get both brothers through college, so the family decided to just get Bernie through school. “Me and my dad said he’s focused, he’s hitting the books. Whatever we have to do.. we will do that. But let's not interrupt Bernie's education.”
Bernie earned a degree in information systems in four years. (“He’s the geek in the family,” said Christian. Bernie now works as an IT consultant at Deloitte’s Atlanta office).
Christian has been taking classes on and off ever since.
“There are tons of students who have that momentum out of high school… they hit that wall, because they don't get financial help, and on top of that they have to pay much more, it just tears them down.”
More than 20 states across the country offer in-state tuition for DACA recipients. Christian said many people move to other states like Texas and California, where they could get in-state tuition. Some don’t end up coming back. “Georgia has a huge brain drain problem,” he said.
That’s precisely what Jaime has been educating House lawmakers about. “Right now for every 100 jobs, there are only 47 available workers…getting [DACA recipients] an education and giving them access to higher education will only help our state with that workforce challenge.”
Some advocates though, don’t think the bill goes far enough. In an interview with the Georgia Recorder, David Garcia of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said that though the bill would be a sign of progress, there are some issues with it, like the residency requirements, which could leave some people out. And according to one legal opinion, DACA recipients are already entitled to in state tuition.
On the other end of the spectrum, D. A King, an activist who leads an organization that has been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant hate group, has said the bill is giving preference to undocumented Georgians, over out-of-state citizens.
But whether or not HB131 moves ahead in the Georgia Capitol, Christian is committed to staying in Georgia, and eventually finishing up the courses required to finally get him a college degree in Business. “I want to stay in Georgia because you know, Georgia is my home. I don't want to live anywhere else. It's where I was raised. And that's where I want to stay.”
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