This Life: DACA student: ‘We just want to better ourselves’

The Georgia Supreme Court decided last week not to hear a case in favor of allowing immigrants with temporary permission to stay in the U.S. to pay in-state tuition to attend college.

It was yet another blow to Sergio Blanco, who’d held out hope that instead of working full time and attending Georgia Highlands College part time, he could finally make education his top priority.

“We pay taxes like anybody else in this state,” the 22-year-old said just hours after the decision made headlines. “I feel like we are productive members of society. It’s upsetting to know that the court doesn’t see it that way.”

In order for a student to receive in-state tuition, the University System of Georgia requires verification of “lawful presence” in the country. The Board of Regents has said students with temporary permission to stay under a 2012 program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA don’t qualify.

RELATED | Ga. high court won’t hear case for in-state tuition for DACA students

It would mean a world of difference to Blanco and other immigrant children, who were brought to this country by parents seeking a better life.

“It would save me tons of money and time if we were allowed in-state tuition,” Blanco said. “because we are supposed to pay all the fees upfront or risk an automatic withdrawal; that is my biggest obstacle to finishing work on my degree.”

You might have guessed by now that Blanco, who’s enrolled in DACA, has a permit that shields him from deportation and allows him to work and so, yes, he considers that a blessing.

But Blanco worries about his and his family’s future. And the estimated 690,000 other “Dreamers” like him.

The Trump administration has moved to rescind the DACA program, but that decision is stalled in federal courts amid legal challenges.

All of that figured prominently early last year, he said, when he met Suleima Millan-Salinas and Christian Limon and the three of them decided to found an advocacy group called Romanos Unidos.

RELATED | Horizons Atlanta giving kids better future

Although Millan-Salinas and Limon were born here, Blanco’s parents brought him here from Mexico when he was just 11 months old.

When their paths crossed in February 2017, they each had turned out in support of a planned boycott of local businesses. It was their way of showing the huge impact the immigrant community has on the economy, but they were keenly aware that the issues immigrants face reached far beyond what any boycott or protest could solve.

“We were ready to do something more,” Blanco said.

They agreed protests and demonstrations have their place, but for the three of them, more meant being consistently available to the community should it need help.

As an undocumented resident, Blanco knows firsthand how real the struggle is, something he discovered soon after entering high school.

Up until then, he said, his parents always told him he “couldn’t do certain things” because he didn’t have a green card.

“At that point, it was like coming to a dead end,” he said. “I couldn’t even apply for a driver’s license or get a job.”

As the time to apply to college drew closer, Blanco discovered only a select few colleges accepted undocumented students and, if they did, tuition was nearly tripled that for in-state students.

“Then the current administration made it worse,” he said. “They criminalized us even though studies prove otherwise.”

He’s right, you know. In fact, several studies indicate that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. What’s more, research shows that poor, uneducated immigrants are also the least likely to use welfare.

RELATED | Undocumented immigrants less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens

That isn’t part of the narrative that’s being promulgated, and that’s one of many reasons why Romanos Unidos is so needed, Blanco believes.

Specifically, he and the other founders of Romanos Unidos hope to organize a club for immigrants at Rome High School to help them navigate the system. That includes assistance applying for jobs and college and getting scholarships.

They host voter registration drives and taillight clinics to make sure they are in working order and immigrants can avoid being stopped by police.

More recently, they’ve been working with the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department and other local organizations to eliminate 287(g), a program that allows police departments to act as ICE agents and retain immigrants without bail.

The program increases the chances for deportation, a fact of which they make sure immigrants are made aware.

Blanco dreams of being a registered nurse one day. Millan-Salinas, who attends Berry College, wants to be a social worker. And Limon, 30, of Atlanta is a bilingual case manager at a Dunwoody law firm.

Anyone can join their efforts. Sign on via their Facebook page, @RomanosUnidosGA, or come out to a meeting, which is at 6 p.m. every Monday at St. Peter’s Church in Rome.

Everyone is welcome.

The court last week didn’t give a reason for not hearing the lawsuit for in-state tuition, but attorneys for the plaintiffs have vowed to continue to fight. While they work to give people a voice, to let them know they are not alone, Blanco, Limon and Millan-Salinas are hopeful.

“We’re not here for handouts or to bother anybody,” Blanco said. “We just want to better ourselves.”

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at

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