As the School of Social Work class of 2019 was called to stand at the University of Georgia’s commencement ceremony, a cohort of students held hands and stood, displaying the phrase “Lift the Ban” decorated on their graduation caps.
The students were protesting the University System of Georgia’s ban on the admittance of undocumented students to UGA and its refusal to allow in-state tuition for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients.
Recent graduates Erin Ernst, Hannah Murray and Lizeth Montoya joined forces to silently protest the ban after learning of its effects on Georgia students in a Global Social Work & Sustainable Social Development course with professor Jane McPherson.
The protest, officially titled “Lift the Ban,” is focused on the right for all students to receive higher education in their own state, Murray said.
In 2010, the USG Board of Regents instituted Policy 4.1.6, which states “a person who is not lawfully present in the United States shall not be eligible for admission to any University system institution.” Since 2016, Augusta University and Georgia State University — two universities out of five originally listed in the policy— have been allowed to accept undocumented students. These five universities are classified as selective, meaning more qualified students apply than are accepted.
I realized I’m not doing anything wrong — what’s wrong is this policy.
— Lizeth Montoya, UGA graduate
Still, the three other Georgia universities — UGA, Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia College and State University — continue to bar undocumented students admittance. These universities are unable to admit undocumented students because the Board of Regents recognizes these to be the state’s “most selective institutions.”
DACA gives eligible immigrants protection from deportation and a work permit while they seek an education in the U.S. The requirements for this program vary, but students must be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and they must have arrived in the U.S. before turning 16 years old.
Walking for a cause
After learning about the effects of the policy, Ernst decided she couldn’t graduate from the university without speaking out.
“I announced to my classmates that I’d be protesting the ban at graduation,” Ernst said. “A few decided they also wanted to walk down the stage and leave behind a strong message.”
Soon after, Murray and Montoya moved past their initial hesitations to join Ernst in protesting at graduation.
“At first, the thought of speaking out was scary because I didn’t want to jeopardize receiving my diploma,” Montoya said. “Then, I realized I’m not doing anything wrong — what’s wrong is this policy.”
On April 30, a banner was placed over the Tate Walkway that read, “Did you know that you attend a segregated university?” with Policy 4.1.6 written above. It was taken down by a UGA employee a few hours later. The silent protest is a metaphor alluding to the “voiceless” students who were denied admission into UGA, Montoya said.
Montoya and Ernst’s close loved ones are directly affected by UGA’s ban — Ernst’s boyfriend is a DACA recipient, along with some of Montoya’s relatives.
“I wasn’t born in the U.S. but was able to gain citizenship early on,” Montoya said. “Others in my family, who grew up in Georgia, weren’t as lucky. I protest with them in my thoughts.”
Ernst’s boyfriend moved from El Salvador to the U.S. when he was 6 years old. He now calls Athens home, but he can’t enroll in the university of his choice, Ernst said.
“DACA and undocumented students didn’t choose to be born outside the U.S.,” Montoya said. “I know firsthand how disappointing this ban is to them and their academic ambitions.”
The first part of the students’ protest began at graduation with students displaying ‘Lift the Ban’ on their caps in honor of DACA recipients and undocumented students.
The students will continue to stand in solidarity as they transition into alumni. They vow to continue spreading awareness of the ban and writing letters to the university’s administration in effort to produce change.
“I’m hoping that our actions will bring this issue to light and encourage more alumni and current students to speak out for what they know is right,” Murray said.
After graduation, the three women responsible for coordinating the protest plan to continue focusing on their passion for social justice in their careers.
Murray plans to work with Positive Behavior Supports Corporation, as a Registered Behavior Technician. Ernst will work with Teach For America and teach an 8th grade history class in Nashville. Montoya will work as an advocate for people affected by domestic violence, focusing on the Spanish-speaking community.
“I think we all aspire to make a difference with our protest at graduation but also in our careers,” Ernst said. “The fight for justice in our community will continue.”