ATLANTA- In the roughly six weeks since she was arrested for driving without a license, the case of Jessica Colotl, an illegal immigrant and college student in suburban Atlanta, has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate.
The Kennesaw State University senior’s situation has drawn an outcry from people on both sides.
The American Civil Liberties Union, upset that she was detained under a section of immigration law it believes should be reserved for violent criminals, contacted the Department of Homeland Security on her behalf. A Republican candidate for governor this week demanded that citizenship verification be a part of the admissions process at state universities, and others are calling for the firing of Kennesaw State’s president.
Though Colotl was released from federal custody last week and action on her immigration case has been deferred for a year, Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren on Wednesday obtained a warrant for her arrest on new charges that she gave authorities a false address.
In a joint statement Thursday evening, Colotl’s attorneys and groups supporting her said she had been in touch with the sheriff’s office. The sheriff and a spokeswoman for his office did not immediately return messages left seeking comment Thursday evening.
The 21-year-old’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico more than 10 years ago. She graduated from high school in Georgia and entered Kennesaw State in the fall of 2006. A sorority member who dreams of becoming lawyer, she was set to graduate with a degree in political science this fall.
Colotl was arrested March 30, the day after getting pulled over by university police for a traffic violation. She was booked into the Cobb County Detention Center for driving without a license and impeding the flow of traffic.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office participates in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program—called 287(g) -- that allows local law enforcement agents to enforce federal immigration laws. Cobb County authorities turned the student over to ICE on April 1 and she was taken to a detention center in Alabama.
Her case got attention after about 30 members of her sorority from different universities wore their Lambda Theta Alpha gear and carried signs saying they were marching to support Colotl at an immigration rally at the state Capitol May 1.
The ACLU said it contacted DHS on her behalf and Kennesaw State said it has been “actively engaged in intervening on her behalf on several fronts.”
ICE released Colotl last week and deferred action on her case for a year, allowing her to complete her classes.
“We are especially thrilled that she will be allowed to continue her studies here at KSU,” Kennesaw State president Daniel Papp said in a statement after Colotl was released.
Warren said he got a new warrant for her arrest this week because Colotl gave a false address when she was booked into the jail, and making a false statement to law enforcement is a felony under Georgia law.
“Ms. Colotl knew that she was in the United States without authority to be here and voluntarily chose to operate a vehicle without a driver’s license; which is a violation of Georgia law,” Warren said in a statement. “She has further complicated her situation with her blatant disregard for Georgia Law by giving false information.”
Colotl’s criminal lawyer, Chris Taylor, said she is innocent of all charges. “It is truly sad that the authorities in Cobb have failed to use their common sense in dealing with Jessica’s case,” he said.
Taylor said his client gave her proper address to both Cobb County and immigration officials.
Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Colotl and her friends were unsuccessful Thursday.
Civil liberties and immigrant rights groups say that the 287(g) law shouldn’t be used for people like Colotl.
“We have a very clear example in her case where we have a very promising student with great potential being caught up in this system that was meant for the most dangerous criminals,” said Azadeh Shahshahani of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.
The sheriff countered that he values “any tool that helps me enforce the law and remove violators from our community.”
Americans for Immigration Control, a group that calls for strict enforcement of immigration reform, has called for Papp’s firing.
Spokesman Phil Kent said Papp violated state policy by granting in-state tuition to an illegal immigrant.
“Our colleges must not be turned into sanctuaries for illegal immigrants who make no effort to return to their home countries and initiate the required paperwork to study here legally,” he said.
Kennesaw State has said that Colotl was admitted as an in-state student because she graduated from a Georgia high school.
Charles Kuck, Colotl’s immigration lawyer and a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he believes laws that prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits are meant to bar them from receiving government scholarshipsor grants.
“I do not believe it is illegal for them to attend college in the U.S.,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, whose district includes Kennesaw, said Colotl’s case demonstrates that federal immigration laws need to be strengthened.
“Jessica Colotl has undoubtedly met with success since coming to the United States,” he said in a statement. “However, her successes since arriving here illegally must not influence which of our laws are applicable to her. Simply put, the law is the law and it is unfortunate that her parents put her in this position by bringing her here illegally as a child.”
After hearing about Colotl’s case, Republican candidate for governor Eric Johnson called on the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s university system, to make citizenship verification a part of the admissions process.
“For us to allow an illegal immigrant to take a taxpayer subsidized spot in our University system away from a legal resident is wrong,” said Johnson said, a former state senator.
“Simply checking a box on a form is not enough—we should ask prospective students to provide verifiable proof of their immigration status,” he added.