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The Invisibles

The students in UCLA's undocumented immigrant club struggle for an education others take for granted, getting by without financial aid, traditional IDs, even a place to live. They're smart and determined. But do they have a future here?

April 23, 2006|Douglas McGray | Douglas McGray is a contributing writer for West and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Martha is just as adamant--and she has been fending off marriage proposals for years. "I guess I'm a lucky girl," she jokes. Truthfully, it gets a little annoying. "I don't even like to tell guys about my situation, because they think they have to rescue me, or they think I want to get married." She would rather spend her whole life undocumented than marry for citizenship. "It seems like prostitution. I really frown on it."

Five years ago, as AB 540 first appeared in the California Assembly, members of Congress confronted much the same issue because of a girl named Theresa. Theresa's parents, Korean citizens, brought her to Chicago when she was a toddler. She grew up to be an honors student and a concert pianist, recruited by Juilliard. When she asked her parents for her Social Security number so she could finish her Juilliard application, her parents told her she was an illegal immigrant.

The family approached their senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, for advice. He was stunned to learn that kids such as Theresa existed. Together with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, he introduced a bill called the DREAM Act. The bill recognized that kids such as Thi and Martha grew up as Americans and may not even remember another home. It offered them conditional resident status when they graduate from high school; if they graduate from college or serve in the military, that conditional status becomes a green card.

When Durbin and Hatch introduced the DREAM Act in 2001, it provoked the kind of deep disagreement that seems to follow each new immigration proposal. Eventually, though, the bill had collected a staggering 47 co-sponsors, nearly half the Senate, including immigration hawk Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho; likely GOP presidential candidates John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and their Democratic counterpart, New York's Hillary Clinton; Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman; California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. The bill has enjoyed unusually broad support for an immigration measure for several reasons.

Only the most extreme immigration hard-liner would blame a toddler, or even an adolescent, for the choices their parents made. Some strain to make the case that offering opportunities to kids such as Thi, Martha or Esmeralda is akin to rewarding their parents, but that is just a polite way to argue that punishing children will discourage illegal immigration--not exactly a crowded bandwagon, when there are other ways to address the problem. Besides, there is something undeniably American about kids who scrap their way out of a bad situation with talent and hard work.

In 2003, the Senate's right-leaning Judiciary Committee voted 16-3 to bring the DREAM Act to the rest of the Senate. But the Senate's Republican leadership refused to schedule the DREAM Act for an up-or-down vote. The bill had Republican dissenters, and Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, appeared fearful of dividing his party and alienating right-wing activists.

Again this year, the Judiciary Committee endorsed the DREAM Act, voting to attach it to the Senate's sweeping immigration reform bill. But before Congress left for recess earlier this month, that bill bogged down, perhaps indefinitely. Even if the measure ultimately passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with a tougher House bill on immigration. Just before legislators left town, however, a bipartisan group of House members reintroduced their version of the DREAM Act. Compared with the nightmarish task of overhauling America's immigration system, and determining the future of 12 million illegal residents, offering green cards to a few all-but-American college kids hardly seems controversial.

This winter, at UCLA's request, IDEAS organized a career counseling session for AB 540 students. Alberto and another recent graduate spoke, along with a representative for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If students were looking for encouragement, they were not going to find it here. "There is no shame in going back to your humble beginnings," Alberto said. The other presenter, a first-year student at Loyola Law School, pointed out that he might never be able to practice.

"The priority is to get the knowledge, to get the education," MALDEF's representative said. "Nobody is going to be able to take that away from you. Whether you have a certificate that says you're a lawyer or not, you'll be a lawyer."

"Actually, you do need to take the bar exam to be a lawyer," the law student said.

"At heart," the woman from MALDEF clarified.

"Oh, OK," he said, amused. "A lawyer at heart."

Martha wasn't scheduled to speak, but she didn't like the way the conversation had turned. She stood up.

"I came here and spent thousands and thousands of dollars, overcame so many obstacles," she said. "I know it seems like you're going to be poor your whole life. But our education has to be worth more than money." She told students to find ways to apply their education, even if they can only volunteer. "I want to feel like I'm useful."

It is not a satisfying ending. But she has done all she can. Her future now is out of her hands.

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