ATLANTA — Three immigrant students are challenging a policy that bars them from attending Georgia’s five most competitive state colleges and universities because of their immigration status.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on Friday filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Elly Marisol Estrada, Salvador Alvarado and Diana Umana. All three are beneficiaries of a 2012 Obama administration policy that granted temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. to young people brought to the country as children and who were living here illegally but who meet certain criteria.

The Board of Regents in 2010 adopted a policy that bars any state college or university that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from admitting those in the country illegally. The Regents have said students with temporary permission to stay under the 2012 program — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — do not meet the requirement of “lawful presence” in the U.S.

The lawsuit names as defendants the individual members of the Board of Regents, which governs the university system, as well as the presidents of the state’s five most competitive state colleges and universities.

University System of Georgia spokesman Charles Sutlive declined to comment on pending litigation.

The ban includes the state’s four research institutions — the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and Augusta University — as well as Georgia College and State University. The students may be admitted to any other state college or university, provided that they pay out-of-state tuition.

The lawsuit filed Friday says the policy is pre-empted by federal immigration law and therefore violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. The policy also violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee by barring admission to certain institutions without a constitutionally valid justification, the lawsuit says.

“Not only is the policy contrary to the very fairness embedded in our constitutional system, but it ultimately hurts Georgia by diminishing the overall quality of its classrooms,” MALDEF staff attorney Burth Lopez said in a news release.

All three of the students who filed the lawsuit are graduates of Georgia high schools.

Estrada is currently enrolled at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia, and wishes to transfer to one of the Georgia university system’s five most competitive schools, the lawsuit says. Alvarado, an incoming freshman at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Umana, a student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, would like to attend one of the top five Georgia state schools but have been forced to leave the state to get a comparably prestigious college education, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks the court to prevent enforcement of the university system’s policy and to declare it unlawful and invalid. It also seeks damages for economic harm and emotional distress, as well as legal fees.

A separate federal lawsuit filed by MALDEF in March challenges the out-of-state tuition requirement for DACA recipients. That lawsuit is pending.


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