Less than 1 percent of Georgia's public college students were illegal immigrants.
Jessica Colotl has always tried to keep a low profile–obeying the speed limit, making sure her lights work properly–knowing that a brush with law enforcement could lead to her deportation and cost her a college diploma.
After a few close calls, her fears were realized last spring, when she was stopped for a minor traffic violation, charged with driving without a license and turned over to immigration authorities.
She spent 37 days in a detention center in Alabama before they let her out and said they would give her a year to finish her studies at Kennesaw State University.
Before her arrest, Colotl had revealed her immigration status only to her closest friends. In the five weeks she was held last spring, her sorority sisters marched to have her freed, her case went viral and she was thrust into the national spotlight.
She emerged a reluctant symbol, seized upon by both sides of the debate over illegal immigration.
“It was a very beautiful and scary case at the same time,” said Georgina Perez, who was brought here illegally as a young child, as was Colotl. “When they let her go, we were all so happy. But then when I saw how the anti-immigrant people went after her, I became scared.”
Advocates for tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants argued in letters to the editor and complaints to the Georgia university system that illegal immigrants like Colotl shouldn’t be allowed to attend state schools and should be deported.
“I think it’s grossly unfair to the real immigrants who have followed the rules to come here legally,” said D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
Through it all, the soft-spoken Colotl has been left wondering, “Why me?”
“I don’t like it at all,” she said of the intense scrutiny she’s endured. “I’ve never liked to be the center of attention, especially for a controversial issue.”
Colotl, 22, is among hundreds of thousands of young people who have been brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents. Many hold out hope that Congress will eventually provide a path to legalization for certain illegal immigrants brought here as children.
Groups of illegal immigrant students have come out around the country over the past year, staging high-profile actions designed to draw attention to their plight and urge lawmakers to act.
Last month, Perez was one of seven illegal immigrant youths who demanded greater access to higher education by sitting down in an Atlanta street blocking traffic until police arrested them.
Unlike the students who have revealed their illegal status voluntarily, Colotl didn’t choose to go public. She supports their actions, she said, but has been too busy with school and her sorority to participate.
“I know a lot of people in the community sometimes wish she would come out more, but it’s completely understandable with everything she’s been through that she doesn’t want to,” Perez said.
Colotl’s case sparked public concerns that Georgia state colleges and universities were being overrun by illegal immigrants, that taxpayers were subsidizing their education and legal residents were being displaced.
Yet a study conducted by the university system’s Board of Regents found that less than 1 percent of the state’s public college students were illegal immigrants, and that students who pay out-of-state tuition — which illegal immigrants are required to do — more than pay for their education.
The board implemented a new policy in October barring any school that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from accepting illegal immigrants. State lawmakers tried to go a step farther, introducing an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have prohibited all of Georgia’s state colleges and universities from admitting illegal immigrants.
King, an ardent supporter of that bill, said he used Colotl’s case last year to file a complaint against the Board of Regents. Young people like Colotl who were brought here by their parents present a sympathetic case, he said, but he blames their parents for their situation.
“I think Jessica Colotl should have been deported last year as an example to the parents who are shamelessly bringing their children into this country,” he said.
Colotl’s parents brought her from Puebla, Mexico, to the U.S. when she was 11. She completed high school in Georgia and went on to Kennesaw State, where she’s set to graduate Wednesday with a major in political science with a legal studies concentration and minor in French.
She very nearly missed out on walking in cap and gown — her one-year reprieve was extended for another year last week, days before it was to expire. Now she hopes to become an immigration lawyer.
While she didn’t invite the spotlight, Colotl still feels it’s had a positive effect.
“I have a few friends who were completely against immigration of any kind, and when they read about my story, they changed their minds and a lot of them told me, ‘We were not right in our opinions, and I appreciate you for educating me on this subject,'” she said.
She’s also been contacted by some illegal immigrant high school students who are inspired by her case.
“That has been the most rewarding part of everything, that other students see this struggle as motivation to keep fighting and to get a higher education,” she said.
Despite all her troubles over the past year, Colotl doesn’t regret her parents’ decision to bring her here.
“I would never dare to blame them for trying to give me a better life,” she said.