This month’s debate, courtesy of the Barkley Forum, is on whether or not Emory should move forward on financial aid for undocumented services and was written by Barkley Forum Members Nate Sawyer and Katie Duval.


Emory University Policy 1.3.1, The Equal Opportunities and Non-Discrimination Policy:

“Emory University is dedicated to providing equal opportunities to all individuals regardless of race, color, religion, ethnic or national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status or any factor that is prohibited consideration under applicable law.”

This policy stands as a hallmark of inclusion and accessibility to some, but conditional, lip service to others. Does Emory’s policy truly promote “equal opportunity” and “non-discrimination”?

Our current response to the plight of undocumented youth attempting to farther their education calls into question this commitment.

The conversation regarding the rights of undocumented students seeking higher education is one that takes place on multiple college campuses nation-wide.

New York University is the most recent addition to a list of peer institutions working to increase educational access for undocumented students that already includes Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale. Others like Berea, Tougaloo and Hampshire have gone even farther and offered full scholarships for academically promising students.

Can Emory be a truly commit itself to developing a just and equitable world while failing to support some of the more vulnerable members of our communities — undocumented youth?

Freedom at Emory, a student initiative formed this year in partnership with Freedom University, answers this question with a resounding no.

Freedom University is a free volunteer-run underground university providing college-level classes for undocumented students prohibited from attending public schools in Georgia by the Georgia Board of Regents.

Laura Emiko Soltis, an Emory graduate and executive director at Freedom University, argues that the University is playing a key role in combatting the “modern era of educational segregation in the South.”

Freedom at Emory has been aiding this effort with student volunteers helping to facilitate classes on college preparation, including SAT preparation and navigating the college application process, as well as public speaking and debate.

While both initiatives are crucial steps in the right direction, neither can replace the importance of educational access to institutions like Emory.

However, admission at Emory is only half the battle.

While undocumented students can be admitted to Emory, as students are typically coming from low-income backgrounds, Emory’s failure to provide students with financial support in addition to acceptance effectively bars access to qualified students. Worse, Emory admits undocumented students as international students and requires proof of ones ability to pay full tuition. This system magnifies problems of financial access that already impacts undocumented students because of their inability to access federal loans and scholarships because of a lack of documentation.

Our failure to provide financial support is as effective as an overt ban in keeping undocumented students off our campus and out of our classrooms.

Private universities like Emory, not subject to the draconian restrictions of Georgia’s Board of Regents’ Policy 4.1.6, are uniquely situated at the front lines of hope for undocumented youth.

Stripped of access to the top public universities and mandated out-of-state tuition for the other institutions, undocumented youth are institutionally deprived of social and economic mobility.

Emory has the ethical responsibility to circumvent this systematic deprivation of rights and opportunity.

Arguments justifying the offer, or denial, of aid for undocumented students because of their contributions to business, engineering and the overall American economy and society are almost entirely beside the point: this is first and foremost an issue of human rights. Undocumented students have already likely faced a lifetime of fear of deportation, accompanying emotional turmoil and the hardships of a struggling family, the challenges of relative poverty and assimilation into a new culture and language, restricted access to health care, and more, all on top of the often-accompanied suite of challenges part and parcel to living in America as an ethnic minority.

As such, Emory’s policies, or lack thereof, are not neutral reflections of a sympathetic, but hand-tied administration without the resources necessary to create change. Instead, how we use our endowment, how we structure our scholarship policies and programs, are decisions that either do or do not reflect complicity in longstanding histories of discrimination and still-pervasive systems of racist-nativism, as Lindsay Pérez Huber, postdoctoral scholar at the University of California All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity, argues.

Such systems of oppression cannot be separated from questions of how Emory ought to respond, particularly if we are to tout ourselves as an “ethically engaged and diverse community.”

Emory’s community stands to benefit enormously from inclusion of undocumented students as well. Conversations in the classroom and out become enriched, calcified notions of privilege become challenge and the demand to understand our ethical responsibility to others becomes a far more pressing, and immediate, concern.

Thus while recent discussion between Freedom at Emory students and President James W. Wagner is an important start, progress is sometimes too slow. As Andy Kim, co-founder of Freedom at Emory, pointed out in his interview with The Emory Wheel, “What didn’t come up in the meeting were immediate things Emory could do as undocumented students open their financial aid packages in April. There are kids right now who will find out that they cannot attend college for another year or so.”

Opinions of the University alumni base seem to be shifting in response to recent demands for change with the GALA Steering Committee and Emory’s LGBT Alumni supporting Freedom at Emory’s initiative. But even if there are remaining concerns about backlash from the Georgia community, the alumni base, and others, then that is precisely why Emory University should take a stand by increasing its financial assistance and easing access to scholarships for undocumented students.

The administration should not hold itself hostage to conservative opinions that promote, as Soltis put it, a “modern era of educational segregation in the South.”

Taking a stand would allow Emory to serve as a model for other universities, both state and nation wide, and would provide a crucial counter-narrative to the logic of the Board of Regents’ policy.

As previously demanded by students and faculty alike, Emory should add “documentation status” to Emory’s Equal Opportunities and Non-Discrimination Policy, while also restructuring undocumented students’ financial aid and scholarship opportunities so as to more accurately reflect the inequality of both opportunity and condition that these students have faced their entire lives. Until then, Emory’s self-proclaimed role as an “ethical leader” will remain a façade: true in some cases but a mere illusion in others.


Freedom University is an organization dedicated to challenging the systematic exclusion of undocumented youth from higher education in Georgia. It is responding to a set of unjust policies established by the Georgia Board of Regents that prevent undocumented immigrants from applying to the top five public universities in the state. Emory has already made efforts to distance itself from the policies of the BOR by allowing undocumented youth to be admitted. Our next step should be to find the best way to support Freedom University without simultaneously damaging their and our long-term cause. A rash move to provide full tuition to a few individuals will do very little for the vast majority impacted by the BOR’s decisions. However, its risks could result in a virulent anti-immigrant backlash on our campus producing policies similar to those created by the Board of Regents. The political and economic climate surrounding immigration demands that we approach any immediate and substantial response with a great deal of caution. We must not ignore that Emory’s offering financial aid to undocumented immigrants requires the support of numerous important stakeholders with various political beliefs, economic interests and expectations.

Providing financial assistance while Georgia’s Board of Regents’ Policy 4.1.6 is still law will turn our efforts into a political firestorm. Jack Stripling, writing for Inside Higher Ed news, indicates that the question of undocumented students within university systems is a “very polarizing issue about which reasonable people can disagree” and that “even a local case involving a single undocumented student has caused impassioned debate.” One only has to look at the tremendous support for the Georgia University System Board of Regents’ policy 4.1.6 to understand just how unremarkable these statements are. The opposition argued that “illegal immigrants were overrunning the system, draining taxpayer dollars and squeezing out qualified Georgians who might otherwise have been admitted to the state’s most competitive colleges” and were often too stubborn to consider the facts of the matter. Joshua Jones, writing for Athens’ Flagpole Magazine, notes that many politicians, state and university alike, have found cracking down on immigrants a way to “score political points.” One would not be shocked to see a similar line of argument forwarded on our campus when we consider the racial politics that already exist on the campus. When the economic climate is perceived to be zero sum, it would be naïve for us to believe that a sizeable number of students would perceive Emory’s support for undocumented youth as coming at their expense.

While it seems like our school should be insulated from the politics of the state public university system, this is obviously not the case. Given that a large percentage of money for the University comes from donations and research grants, public image is of the utmost importance to the administration. According to Emory’s website, “In 2013-14, $430,197,650 in financial aid was awarded to Emory students” and 40 percent of that aid was made possible through donations. Without the favor of major interest groups, it is possible that Emory will not be able to follow through with its commitment to provide financial support for students.

While the administration shouldn’t make drastic changes in response to Freedom University, the current gradual approach is appropriate and historically effective. Although it is true that there are no undocumented students receiving aid today, the steady and gradual acceptance of Freedom University and its mission will inevitably bear fruit and give us time to lay the groundwork for sustainable change. Recently, representatives from Freedom University met with President Wagner and received a commitment to form a “working group” that will explore how the University can adequately work with the organization. All present deemed the meeting a success. Additionally, representatives of the Barkley Forum Center for Debate Education are operating in partnership with Freedom University to provide a public speaking and debate course on Sundays.

The Barkley Forum will host a series of public debates later this year to highlight the importance of changing the national dialogue on undocumented youth and educational access. The notion that Emory is doing nothing on this issue ignores the outstanding work being done by Freedom at Emory and the Barkley Forum to support Freedom University and create a sustainable policy change on our campus. This gradual approach is far superior to funding one or two students and jeopardizing our ability to transform the political climate in the long-term.

If people really want undocumented immigrants to have a chance to attend Emory, they should be supporting the progress that has been made, not calling for radical policy shifts. If the administration were to blanket accept what Freedom University is requesting, it runs the risk of ostracizing our main donors and members of board who functionally control the funding of the aid system. Not only is the financial aid for undocumented immigrants infeasible, it is likely that others who need aid would be negatively affected. In regards to Freedom University, the administration must continue their current approach: treading lightly and adjusting gradually.​