One young man's story
In the spring of his senior year in high school, Arturo Martinez's friends began showing off their college acceptance letters. "Why aren't you going to college?" he recalled them asking. "I mean, you're so smart. You, can go to Georgia Tech or UGA [University of Georgia]."
Martinez didn't want to tell them he couldn't attend those schools because of his immigration status.
He crossed the border illegally from Mexico with his family when he was 8 years old. While growing up in Atlanta, he learned to be cautious about anything that could expose his family's story. When Martinez hurt his knee in a baseball game during middle school, other parents suggested he go to the hospital. Martinez froze, imagining that the doctors' questions could lead to the arrest of his parents. "I just wanted to tell them that I was fine, that I was actually scared of doctors."
Martinez, 22, lives with his parents and younger sister in suburb of Atlanta. His father's work truck is parked neatly in the driveway of their rental house.
After high school, Martinez applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA. The program let him stay in the country and work temporarily. But he still couldn't go to Georgia's top colleges: the University of Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology or Georgia College and State University. At the others, he'd have to pay non-resident tuition.
"I can't afford [the tuition], even if I had two jobs," said Martinez, who works construction with his dad.
In the Deep South, Alabama and South Carolina also prohibit enrollment of undocumented immigrants, though they make exceptions for those with DACA. In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents found less than 1 percent of students in its system were undocumented. All of them — 501 — were paying out-of-state tuition.
Using civil disobedience to challenge exclusion
Watching his friends go off to college was a sad time for Martinez, but then he found out about Freedom University, which is modeled after freedom schools from the civil rights era. The alternative, temporary schools gave African Americans training in academics and organizing and helped build the movement. Freedom University was founded in Atlanta in 2011 after Georgia restricted access for undocumented students.
It got a boost from high profile advisors like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, who promoted the school on The Colbert Report in 2013. Martinez took free college-prep classes at Freedom U and visited campuses out of state. A highlight was speaking on a panel at Berea College in Kentucky, a school with a long history of racial integration in the South.
Based at a secret location in Atlanta, Freedom University has drawn the support of civil rights veterans who have passed on the non-violent civil disobedience tactics they used to defeat legal segregation in the South.
One of Freedom University's main targets is the Georgia Board of Regents.
At a meeting in February, about a dozen students sat in the audience. It was Valentine's Day and they carried carnations and homemade cards asking the Regents to repeal policies restricting undocumented students. Six Freedom University professors dressed in caps and gowns sat across the room.
Shortly after the meeting started, students began walking to the back of the room. At the same time, the professors walked to the front and one by one proclaimed: "I am a teacher and I love these students."
The Regents were whisked from the room. Carnations littered the floor and an officer with the Georgia State Patrol warned students that they'd be arrested if they didn't leave immediately.
The students walked out.
"My heart was racing just because the police were like, ready," said Arizbeth Sanchez. She had twice risked arrest at Freedom University protests. Now, she said, under President Donald Trump, going to jail could mean deportation.
Opponents reject 'Jim Crow' comparison
One of Freedom University's staunchest opponents is D.A. King. He runs a group called the Dustin Inman Society, which favors strict enforcement of immigration laws. The group is named for a Georgia teen who was killed in a car accident by an unauthorized immigrant in 2000.
King vehemently rejects the parallel Freedom University draws to the civil rights movement.
"For people to take the struggle of black Americans to obtain their constitutional rights and compare it to illegal aliens demanding amnesty and access to America that they do not deserve, nor have they earned, makes me sick to my stomach," said King.
Inger Eberhart, an African American member of King's advocacy group, agrees.
"Civil rights is about accepting people for ... things that they can't change," she said. "Civil rights was about women getting the vote. African Americans being able to go against the Jim Crow laws, that sort of thing. This isn't a civil right. They're not citizens."
Eberhart says undocumented students in Georgia rightfully pay more for college. For students who are hungry for education but can't afford tuition, she suggests books or online classes.
Not satisfied with 'crumbs'
Charles Black, a leader in the Atlanta Student Movement in the early 1960s, is among the civil rights leaders supporting Freedom University. He feels a bond with undocumented students fighting for access to higher education. He grew up in the Jim Crow era, and he says he ran into similar barriers.
"There was no college in Miami that I could attend because of my race. None," said Black, who grew up in Florida. In 1958, he came to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, a historically black college.
Legal segregation still governed life in the South.
"It was illegal for blacks and whites to sit together in a place of public assembly," said Black, recalling the segregated buses, restaurants, hotels, taxi cabs and ambulances. "I mean all these things were the law. You know? Just like this is the law now that we are fighting against."
In 1960, Black was arrested for desegregating the whites-only waiting room at Atlanta's Terminal train station. Four years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 toppled Jim Crow.
It's a story that makes Arturo Martinez, the young man doing construction with his dad, feel hopeful.
"They fought for what they believed was right and ended up winning," he said.
Today Martinez is part of a federal lawsuit challenging the higher tuition undocumented students must pay. He hopes to someday go to school in Georgia.
Other Freedom University students have found scholarships to attend school out of state. It's a familiar exodus to Black.
"The brightest blacks of two or three generations ago had to go to the Northeast to get good educations in colleges and universities. Those folk could have been here in the South, making major contributions for the South," said Black. "We're continuing that same pattern of running people away who could be a major resource for the South."