College student and illegal immigrant: Should she stay or go?

Jessica Colotl is a college student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She’s also an illegal immigrant, which was revealed during a traffic stop. Her case raises tough questions about immigration laws.

John Amis/AP
Nara Silva, right, a Kennesaw State University student marches in tandem with other Lambda Theta Alpha sorority sisters from various colleges in support of fellow student Jessica Colotl, who is under threat of deportation, during a pro immigration rally on May, 1 in Atlanta.

The case of Jessica Colotl – a college student who is also an illegal immigrant – is yet another flash point in America’s heated debates over immigration enforcement.

After being stopped in March for impeding the flow of traffic on her college campus in suburban Atlanta, Ms. Colotl failed to produce a driver’s license. She soon found herself arrested and transferred to an immigration detention center.

A native of Mexico, Colotl reportedly came to the United States with her parents at age 10 and graduated from a Georgia high school. She has been attending Kennesaw State University.

After the arrest, immigration officials released her and granted “deferred action” status, giving her the opportunity to finish college in the coming year before any decision is made about deportation.

A host of advocacy groups rallied around her this week when the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office put out another warrant for her arrest, this time alleging that she had given them a false address. She turned herself in Friday and was later released after posting bond. Her immigration status will be reviewed again based on the new charges.

The case draws attention to a host of thorny issues: university admissions and tuition policies, accusations of racial profiling, and the conundrums caused when certain local, state, and national immigration policies intersect.

“None of this would be happening if Congress would act on immigration reform,” says Charles Kuck, Colotl’s immigration lawyer in Atlanta. “We have to ask our congressmen: How bad does it have to get before you have the political courage to pass immigration reform of some kind and give the country an answer to this situation?”

Mr. Kuck and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia fault the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, saying it overreached in an immigration-enforcement partnership known as 287(g). Originally set up through the immigration reform act of 1996, it allows state and local law agencies to be trained to perform some federal immigration-enforcement duties.

The Department of Homeland Security reported 71 such partnerships in the US this January. Last July, it reiterated that the intent of 287(g) was to assist in removing dangerous criminal aliens rather than to arrest people for minor offenses in order to initiate deportation.

“The program is being misused ... [when] people such as Jessica, bright college students and hard-working members of the community, end up getting targeted,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, ACLU of Georgia’s immigration rights director. For several years, her group has raised concerns about racial profiling under 287(g) and “an atmosphere of erosion of trust between immigrant communities and the police.”

The ACLU of Georgia has requested that the civil rights divisions in DHS and the Department of Justice look into 287(g) practices in Cobb County.

Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren could not be reached for comment. In a written rebuttal to an ACLU report last year, Mr. Warren categorically denied racial profiling and other abuses by his office. He characterized the ACLU’s position against 287(g) as an “effort to insulate illegal aliens from applicable immigration laws.”

In discussing Colotl’s case, he said that he values "any tool that helps me enforce the law and remove violators from our community," according to the Associated Press.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington, puts the situation in a different context. “Kids who are brought here by their parents, there’s no question they’re in a difficult situation. But it was the parents who created the situation ... [and] everyone wants to blame the law,” he says.

As for Colotl’s status at Kennesaw State, officials have announced that she will have to pay out-of-state tuition for any future courses, now that they are aware of her immigrant status. She was admitted in 2006, just before the university began charging the higher tuition rate to illegal immigrants, according to a university statement.

Ten states still offer in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students, but many of these are being challenged in court, Mr. Mehlman says.

In light of Colotl’s case, Eric Johnson, a Georgia state senator and Republican candidate for governor, has called on state university leaders to start verifying citizenship during the admissions process.

At the same time, the DREAM Act awaits action in Congress. The legislation, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented youths who complete college or two years of military service, has a long roster of bipartisan supporters.

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