Viridiana Martinez, 24, believes getting arrested for the right to attend college as an undocumented student is worth the risk of deportation, because millions like her are tired of being denied access to higher education.
Martinez is from a small town in North Carolina. She was one of seven undocumented youth that were arrested in front of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, April 5, as part of civil disobedience and “coming out” action.
To bring the plight of millions of undocumented youth, the “Georgia Seven” sat in the middle of a busy street to protest recent anti-immigrant measures in the state.
The Georgia Board of Regents recently voted to ban undocumented youth from the state’s top five public universities.
Plus, Georgia’s House Bill 59 would ban immigrant youth from colleges and HB 87 would allow local police to question people about their immigration status if they are suspected of living in the country illegally, a bill similar to Arizona’s 1070 currently being challenged in the courts.
When she was six, Martinez said her father was forced to leave Mexico in search of work in the United States. After the passage of NAFTA, the company her father worked for in Mexico shut down. Due to inflation and the devaluation of the peso, the prices of food such as milk and eggs skyrocketed and jobs became scarce.
In order to provide for his family her father was left with no choice but to leave Mexico for the tobacco fields in North Carolina.
A year later Martinez and her family reunited with him there – the place that would become her home.
“Little did I know that later it would become a holding cell,” Martinez says. “I’m a proud North Carolinian. I’m a taxpayer. But most importantly I am a human being, whose dreams have been denied.”
Martinez says she has had enough.
“My people are being criminalized for crossing borders to seek a better life while the industries that drove us here are not being held accountable. My community is under attack by legislation that strips people of their humanity, and our human right to education.”
The arrested youth, know as the Georgia Seven, prepared videos and testimonies on The Dream is Coming project website, www.thedreamiscoming.com. The group is part of a national student and immigrant advocacy network that organized the action.
Immigrant youth in a similar situation as Martinez don’t qualify for federal or state financial aid and can’t afford college tuition without loans or grants.
Georgina Perez, 21, also undocumented and one of the seven arrested, said she is not going to apologize for her mother bringing her to the U.S. or her right to speak her native language, Spanish.
Perez lives in Georgia, where as a child, said she had to deal with teachers that treated her as an inferior because she needed to translate for her mother during parent-teacher conferences.
“My mother is a very courageous woman. She is my hero. I’m a proud Georgian and I am a proud Mexicana,” she said.
“My mother left everything she knew behind in order to give me a better life and I thank her for that. I’m not going to let her sacrifices go in vain.”
Perez and the others want state and federal lawmakers to be on the right side of history and pass legislation like the DREAM Act, which would allow immigrant youth access to higher education and a path toward citizenship. Hate, racism and the creation of second-class citizens is morally wrong and politically unacceptable, they charge.
“We’re not going to stay quiet anymore,” said Perez. “We’re not going to be silent or stand in the shadows. We’re going to stand up and fight for our rights and for our communities,” she emphasized.
The arrested youth and supporters note their struggle is similar to the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including the lunch counter sit-ins led by African American students in Greensboro, N.C., more than 50 years ago.
The immigrant student activists met with the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a civil rights activist, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King and other preachers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“We felt the connection,” McDonald told the New York Times. “We pointed out that there has never been a successful movement of any kind without young people, and that was especially true of the civil rights movement. It was the students that filled up the jails, not the preachers.”
The youth were charged with obstructing traffic. It’s unlikely they will be turned over to immigration officials. Atlanta does not participate in a local-federal partnership that empowers local police to enforce federal immigration law.
Photo: Immigrant youth stage a civil disobedience action and stop traffic near Georgia’s Capitol, in Atlanta, April 5, for their right of undocumented youth to attend colleges and universities in the state. (Jorge Mena, courtesy of the Immigrant Youth Justice League)