In the high schools of South-Central Los Angeles, the faces and voices of Mexico and Central America are everywhere. Because I teach English as a second language there, I have come to know many of these young adults.
They are timid, yet eager and respectful. They work hard to learn America's public language. They proudly exhibit signs of acculturation: hair parted to the side gives way to "Terminator" crew cuts; faded 501s replace second-hand corduroys. In their efforts to make something of their lives, I encourage them in the only way I know how: They must get a college education.
No matter what their family's socioeconomic legacy may be, I say, college is the means by which they can recreate that legacy for their children. Whenever my students' motivation begins to wane, I try to strike a spark in them by saying that the skills they learn in my class will help them in college.
Not long ago, however, one of my students, Miguel, challenged me on my college-is-the-answer speeches. In a cold and somber voice, he said: \o7 "No. Eso es mentira." \f7 (That's a lie.) I didn't respond to his contention because, quite frankly, I didn't know what to say. Miguel, I had found out, is an undocumented immigrant. It turns out many of my students are undocumented.
Miguel's words point up a truth that I find difficult to accept: lack of documentation translates into out-of-state tuition fees at community and state colleges. Because these costs are exorbitant, education for Miguel and many of my students will probably end with a high-school diploma. Their vision of a college education--a vision of a better future--is a fantasy, indeed, a "lie."
Last July, Gov. Pete Wilson could have made me a truth teller. But he vetoed a bill that would have overturned a state Supreme Court decision prohibiting undocumented students from establishing California residency for tuition purposes. The court ruled that illegal immigrants cannot benefit from low tuition costs, even though many of them have lived in California for more than three or four years. Thus, the college dreams of thousands of undocumented students became prohibitively expensive. One academic year at a community college costs $2,600.
Still, I continue to trumpet the merits of college. Perhaps my stubbornness is rooted in my inability to ponder the unimaginable. My parents were Mexican immigrants. The goal of a college education focused my imagination, shaped my life. I can scarcely imagine what happens when an aspiration so central to my life, and to American society and culture, becomes impossible for others. But for undocumented students, it is all-too imaginable.
I had successfully evaded Miguel's challenge. But I knew I could no longer withhold the cruel truth when Juan, Xochitl and Rene, three of my former English-as-second-language students looking forward to graduation this June, entered my classroom. Their American Literature teacher had just informed them of their "blessings": Illegal aliens should feel fortunate to be receiving a free high-school education--and they should not aspire to higher education because it would further burden U.S. taxpayers.
Angered and hurt, the three demanded an answer. As I searched for words, Juan asked me if a rumor he had heard was true: that colleges would charge them extremely high tuition fees. I then told them about the court ruling and Wilson's veto. Helplessly, I watched as their eyes reflected desperation.
"What can we do?" asked Rene.
Xochitl, who aspired to be a doctor, muttered something about a part-time job as a domestic in Bel-Air.
Juan, with a 3.5-grade-point average and dreams of being an engineer, stared out my classroom window.
Rene interrupted the awkward moment. "For what, then, have we studied so hard?"
It's easy to argue that we should not let undocumented students benefit from low residential tuition costs, because, in legal terms, it's contradictory. It's easy to argue that these students and their parents compete with Americans for scarce jobs. It's easy to echo Wilson's warning that immigrants, documented and undocumented, are overwhelming public services.
None of these arguments can withstand close study, however. A recent Times article, for example, reported that illegal immigrants generated nearly $3 billion in assorted tax revenues during 1990-91. Sure, most of the money went to Washington, but why make the children of these undocumented immigrants suffer for California's inability to get its fair share of funds that Congress promised when it passed the immigration act?