"I wasn't even excited, because I knew that I wouldn't get it," says Maria, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. "I tried looking into it before."
Maria, 18, was born in Mexico. When she was 13, she joined her father in the U.S. He had already been living here for six years, illegally. And although he applied for his daughter's permanent residency when she arrived, she has still not received it. Two years ago, she says, he became an American citizen.
The HOPE scholarship, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, pays full tuition for public colleges and $3,000 for private colleges, as long as the student has earned a B average or better in high school and maintains it in college.
Maria, who wants to attend the University of Georgia in preparation for a law career, is now a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, which identifies her as "Jane Doe 1." In a complaint filed Feb. 14 in DeKalb County court, an Athens attorney is asking that the Georgia Student Finance Commission pay the scholarship to all state residents who qualify, regardless of immigrant status.
"These kids had nothing to do with coming to this country illegally," says the attorney, Christopher Adams. "And they're really actually more American than Mexican. A lot of them would have a somewhat difficult time if you sucked them up with a vacuum cleaner and plunked them down in, say, Guadalajara."
Still, extending to illegal residents benefits that are normally reserved for U.S. citizens is bound to invite criticism. "I don't believe the American people are responsible for the education of another country's children," says Donna Locke, coordinator of the Georgia Coalition for Immigration Reform. She says Georgia needs to enforce existing immigration laws and create tougher laws, not reward illegal immigrants with free education.
But Adams says the laws are not working. "Personally, I think the immigration law here is just ludicrous," he says. "This may be too cynical, but I think that as a society, we use Hispanics. We knowingly ignore the huge migration of illegal immigrants because we have to have them. The construction industry just has to have them. It would shut down. Poultry processing wouldn't happen if it weren't for Hispanics. Whites and blacks won't do that kind of work for those wages."
Indeed, this isn't the first time Adams has used the courts to advance the cause of illegal immigrants. Eighty-five percent of his clients are Hispanic. And last month, he filed a separate lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Public Safety, demanding that the state issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens who want them.
Arguing the conventional wisdom, Adams says that illegal immigrants are in fact an economic positive for the U.S.; although they do not pay income tax, they pay sales tax and property tax.
Property tax sounds implausible, but many immigrants get home loans through loan officers who accept false social security numbers, says Ben Rincon, who owns a mortgage company in Atlanta. And they have to pay property tax or their home will be taken away, Adams says.
To bolster the HOPE case, Adams cites a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe. Texas had passed a statute denying funding for illegal immigrant children attending elementary through high school. A class-action lawsuit challenging the statute reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices declared the statute unconstitutional.
They based their decision on the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
A Georgia State University law professor, who teaches a course in immigration law, says the HOPE lawsuit has a chance. "I think the court could hold either way in this case," says Natsu Saito. "There's a good case to be made for Plyler."
The HOPE lawsuit asks that all who qualified for the scholarship, but were denied it because of immigration status, be identified and receive the funding, going back to 1993 -- the first year HOPE was given. The suit asks for $25,000 per plaintiff, but that is only an estimate, says Adams, since HOPE money is paid directly to the college for tuition.
The Georgia Student Finance Commission declined comment on the lawsuit; it hadn't yet been served with the suit at press time.
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