Melissa and Ashley, identical twins from Georgia, shared a bedroom while growing up. They had the same best friend, took classes together in high school, and dreamed of becoming artists in their own collective. “We’re like two different people with one brain,” Melissa liked to say.
In the spring of 2011, during their junior year, they decided to apply to college in their usual way—in tandem. The University of Georgia, in Athens, the state’s flagship university, was their first choice. “All my life, I knew I wanted to go to college, even before I understood what that would entail,” Ashley said. “My parents didn’t go to college, so they didn’t know how to navigate all this. We had to figure out the process for ourselves.” As soon as they started filling out the application online, however, they encountered a problem. The second page of the Web site wouldn’t load.
Ashley called the university’s admissions office to see if the site had crashed. The receptionist, who spoke in a treacly drawl, directed her to a question on the first page, which asked if the applicant was a United States citizen.
“It should say ‘yes’—is that what you put?” she asked.
“We’re sort of in limbo at the moment,” Ashley replied. When the twins were six years old, they moved from Mexico with their parents and older sister to the suburbs of Atlanta. Victor and Verónica, their father and mother, came to Georgia legally to work in the construction boom of the mid-nineties. In 2010, they applied for permanent residency, but a year later they still hadn’t received a response.
“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetie,” the receptionist said. “It probably has to do with that.”
Ashley and Melissa didn’t know it, but the year before, the Georgia Board of Regents, which oversees the university system, had instituted a policy barring undocumented students from the state’s top five public schools. Georgia had thirty-five public colleges, serving about three hundred and ten thousand students, of whom some five hundred were undocumented; only twenty-nine undocumented students were enrolled at the top five schools. Nevertheless, the state legislature wanted the Board of Regents to send a message. As a state senator’s spokesman said, “We can’t afford to have illegal immigrants taking a taxpayer-subsidized spot in our colleges.” Two other states—South Carolina and Alabama—ban undocumented students from public universities.