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Effect of illegal status on college students detailed

May 20, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

What does it mean to be an undocumented immigrant studying at a California college?

According to students who appeared Saturday before a panel of California lawmakers at UCLA, it's a relentless scramble to secure enough money to attend school.

It's not only hard to find a job, but it's also extremely difficult to secure financial aid or scholarships to help pay for tuition, causing some to drop out to save up, the students told five legislators: two state senators and three assemblymen.

Paola Fernandez, 21, said she's unsure whether she'll have enough money to attend UC Santa Barbara in the fall.

Fernandez, whose parents brought her to the Central Valley from Mexico illegally when she was 4, just graduated from a Kern County community college, where she was a top student.

Sophomore Ernesto Rocha, 20, who crossed the border when he was 8, sometimes takes his sleeping bag to a UCLA library or a friend's nearby apartment because he can't afford to live on campus.

He juggles classes with a 22-hour workweek and a bus and train commute from his family's home in Long Beach that takes two hours each way.

Recent UCLA graduate Tam Tran, 24, said she gave up an offer for graduate school because she couldn't afford it.

"Next week, I'll start job hunting," said Tran, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who has lived in the United States since she was in first grade.

"Since I can't work legally, I know the job I'm going to look for isn't the one I'll want to have," she said. "The job I want makes use of my college degree."

Saturday's conference was part of an effort by UCLA students to raise more awareness about the plight of undocumented collegians, focusing particularly on those who arrived illegally as infants or very young children.

Some of the students said their parents only disclosed their undocumented status to them when they were applying to college.

The students on the panel voiced support for a proposal in Congress, known as the Dream Act, that would give illegal immigrants who arrived as children and are headed for college or the military a way to earn citizenship more quickly.

Opponents of the legislation have said the measure would reward illegal immigration.

The Dream Act was included in a compromise unveiled by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators Thursday, giving hope to the students at the conference that the measure has a chance to pass this year. According to the National Immigration Law Center, about 65,000 high school students who graduate each year would qualify for the Dream Act.

California lawmakers recognized the financial plight of undocumented students in 2001, when legislation passed granting them in-state tuition if they graduated from a California high school.

State Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who attended the conference, has reintroduced the California Dream Act, SB 160, which would allow undocumented students to apply for California scholarships and financial aid.

"We must have these people be successful, if California is to remain a prosperous state and remain competitive in the global economy," Cedillo said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill that landed on his desk last year.

"While I do not believe that undocumented children should be penalized for the acts of their parents, 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," the governor wrote.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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