For Francisco Alvarado, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant enrolled at Cal State Dominguez Hills, a college education would be impossible without some financial assistance.
In his two years at the school, Alvarado has received about $4,000 from the student organization Espiritu de Nuestro Futuro, which raises scholarship money for undocumented students. "That's why I came to the United States, with the purpose to go to college, to receive higher education, to make my dreams come true," said Alvarado, vice president of Espiritu. "I came for the opportunities."
Previously, Espiritu raised money through bake sales and other small fundraising efforts. Since it formed five years ago the group has raised and distributed at least $30,000 to about a dozen students, members said.
But on Friday it will sponsor its most ambitious fundraiser: a banquet dinner hosted by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), with the hopes of raising at least $10,000.
"We have a principle in the United States that the sins of the father should not be visited on the child," De La Torre said of the campaign. "And these young people didn't do anything. They did not choose, when they were in kindergarten, fifth or ninth grade, to come to the United States. Somebody, an adult, brought them here."
Although Alvarado said his parents did not bring him to the U.S., they told him at age 15 that he had to come here to join his brother, giving him little choice in the matter.
Others said they came here with their parents.
Espiritu is one of several groups that have formed in recent years to provide financial assistance to undocumented students and others who qualify for admission to California's public university and college system. At Cal State L.A., the Erika J. Glazer Family Scholarship Fund, financed with a $1-million endowment, was specifically established in 2005 to assist these types of students.
In 2001, the state Legislature passed AB 540, which granted undocumented students and California natives who live elsewhere the right to pay in-state tuition fees if they met certain requirements. These included attending three years of high school in California, graduating from a California school and, in the case of the undocumented student, filing an affidavit with the university promising to promptly apply for residency.
"The problem is they can get in, but they don't have financial aid, and we know that fees in the Cal State system have almost doubled over the last five years," Steve Teixeira, director of the student support program at Cal State L.A., said of undocumented students.
But anti-illegal immigration groups said the law is unfair to others, especially those students here legally who must pay higher out-of-state tuition fees, which can run as much as $900 more per class in the Cal State system.
"Nobody wants to hurt the kids, but when you come down to it ... there are only a finite number of seats available," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks tighter border controls. "When you start admitting illegal immigrants, you are essentially denying somebody else's child the opportunity to attend the school."
In December 2005, a group of out-of-state students and parents filed a class-action lawsuit against California's public university and community college systems, alleging they were illegally charged higher fees than undocumented immigrants.
In October, a Yolo County Superior Court judge ruled that AB 540 did not violate federal law because it was based on high school attendance, not on residence. The ruling has been appealed.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) introduced the California Dream Act, or SB 160, last year that would allow AB 540 students to apply and compete for financial aid at state public colleges and universities.
The bill passed both houses but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "While I do not believe that undocumented children should be penalized for the acts of their parents," Schwarzenegger wrote in a note to the state Senate, "this bill would penalize students here legally by reducing the financial aid they rely on to allow them to go to college and pursue their dreams."
Cedillo reintroduced his bill this year.
Alvarado, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City at 15, lives in South-Central Los Angeles with his brother. As a senior in high school, he heard a presentation from a member of Espiritu on AB 540 students. When he got into Dominguez Hills, he joined the club.
Carolina Couto, 24, said she came from Mexico City more than a decade ago to join her mother, who was living in Los Angeles. Couto said her parents were divorced and that her father thought her move was best for the family. "Everything got arranged by my mom," she said. "I don't know many of the other details because I was 10 or 11, I just know I got here."