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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 187 : Students Fear Their Hopes Will Be Dashed : Initiative could throw illegal immigrants out of college and off a well-worn American path to success. 'I came here . . . to escape the war in El Salvador,' one says. 'I didn't want to come.'

October 23, 1994|SAM ENRIQUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal State Northridge sophomore Vladimir Cerna is the sort of student whom high school counselors always remember--a poor kid but bright, someone who gets into trouble early on, straightens out and makes it to college.

While his mom cleans houses and his stepfather works at the carwash, Cerna--a member of the campus senate--studies to be a sociologist. Two days a week he tutors junior high students in algebra and geometry. Between classes he works as a clerk in the school's business department.

To many, the 21-year-old Cerna embodies the American dream. He is also an llegal immigrant, living in the United States without permission.

So far, those two views have not caused much conflict for Cerna. Nobody at Cal State Northridge--or any of the other 19 California State University schools--is asked to prove legal status.

But now, Cerna and other illegal immigrants enrolled at the Northridge campus worry that their haven will be transformed into a government trap by Proposition 187.

The initiative, if passed, would restrict illegal immigrants' access to public education, health care and other government programs. It would also require school officials to report to authorities any students suspected of living in the United States illegally.

"I came here five years ago to escape the war in El Salvador," said Emilio Flores, 20, a CSUN junior and photography editor of the campus newspaper. "I didn't want to come. But here I am."

For years, CSU schools have been the fast track for undocumented students bright and ambitious enough to escape the low-wage drudgery endured by their immigrant parents.

Although lawsuits are expected to delay or void portions of the initiative restricting education for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, college education does not have the same constitutional protections in California. CSU officials say they can only wait and see.

No one knows how many CSU students are illegal immigrants. The estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.

Few of Cerna's friends know his status. Being an illegal immigrant is no badge of honor.

But like the other CSUN students interviewed for this story, Cerna asked that his real name be used. The decision to shed anonymity reflects the deep sentiment that Proposition 187 has aroused among those who did as they were told, rejecting gangs and drugs and welfare in favor of the historical and well-worn path to success in America.

A friend, CSUN senior Liz Montanez, said Cerna keeps a wide circle of friends informed about campus politics.

"He's the one who goes to meetings, so a lot of us get our information from him," she said.

Cerna began his scramble in the United States eight years ago, when he was 13. It was November and Cerna had graduated from the eighth grade, the last mandatory year of school in El Salvador. He was looking forward to entering a secondary school, but his parents had other plans.

"My stepfather said, 'Pack your things, we are leaving Monday,' " said Cerna, who with his two brothers and sister endured a six-week journey that included 10 days strapped to the top of freight trains through Mexico. "The trip was like going to hell and back."

By the 12th grade at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, Cerna was excelling in college preparatory classes. He graduated with honors and earned awards in English and math. He hopes now to earn a doctorate in sociology.

"If 187 passes, I'm not sure exactly how it will affect me," he said.

CSU officials say that if voters approve the initiative, legal challenges will likely delay implementation, possibly for years.

"First, I would try to work fulltime and pay as an international student," Cerna said. "But I guess in the back of my mind I'm thinking I would go back to El Salvador and teach there. That would be difficult. With the new government, it is very unstable."

CSUN senior Laura Godoy--the oldest of 11 brothers and sisters from Mexico--is also in the United States illegally. She did well enough at Franklin High School in Highland Park to get admitted to Cal State Northridge.

"I will be the first in my family to graduate from college," Godoy said. "My dad didn't finish junior high school. My mom didn't finish elementary school."

Emilio Flores, who was sent to Los Angeles from El Salvador by his father on a tourist visa, enrolled at University High School in West Los Angeles after arriving in the United States and took an after-school job at Taco Bell.

After an angry customer spat at him when he forgot to include taco sauce with the man's order, Flores said, "I realized I had come here for something else," for a life better than one as a fast-food worker.

"My parents weren't here. I could have done what I wanted . . . hung around and become a gangster," he said. "I was hanging around a crowd that partied a lot and I could have easily stayed a part of that. Thank God, I didn't."

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