Reporting from Fresno — The parents of popular Cal State Fresno Student Body President Pedro Ramirez always talked a lot about el sueño Americano — the American Dream.
He was to study hard, get good grades and claim the prize, but it wasn't until that night in their kitchen when the high school valedictorian was filling out university applications that they told him a missing detail — he wasn't a United States citizen. He was born in Mexico. He came to this country when he was 3 years old.
Now, an anonymous tip to the college newspaper has forced Ramirez to publicly expose his secret and has put this son of a maid and a restaurant worker into the thick of a debate on immigration and education that has reached a boiling point in recent weeks. Some have called for his resignation while others have rallied to his defense.
"In a way, I'm relieved," said Ramirez, a 22-year-old political science major from Tulare, Calif. "I don't want to be a liability or cost the school donations. I never really thought this was going to happen. But now that it's out there, I finally feel ready to say 'Yes, it's me. I'm one of the thousands.' "
Ramirez's critics say he wasn't honest with the student body about his immigration status when he ran for president and should resign.
"He misled the students … he should step down," Cole Rojewski, president of the campus' College Republicans and one of Ramirez's opponents in the race for president, said in a television interview.
School administrators said Ramirez broke no rules by running for president of Associated Students Inc.
"To our way of thinking he hasn't done anything wrong," said Paul Oliaro, vice president for Student Affairs.
"This is a very diverse region, agriculture is dominant, and this is going to cause a lot of controversy. But the reality is that these students are … here, they're legitimate students, and if anything, Pedro shows what they can contribute," Oliaro said, adding, "We'll see how this plays out."
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher sanctions on illegal immigration, characterized the situation at Cal State Fresno as a logical extension of what he called the state and federal government's lack of concern about enforcing immigration law in general.
"Why should he step down?" Camarota said. "He's very clearly gotten the message that immigration law doesn't matter — you can violate it with impunity."
A foreshadowing of Ramirez's step into public discourse came with what at first seemed good news for him. After winning the presidency by a sizable margin in June, he found out that it came with a $9,000 stipend.
He was going to school under a law that allows students who attended a California high school for at least three years to pay the in-state tuition rate.
But with no documents, Ramirez couldn't receive any federal aid or legally work. He helped his father mow lawns and helped his mother clean houses to make money. Often he had less than $5 in his bank account.
He looked at the forms and realized he couldn't fill them out without a Social Security number.
"He personally notified me and ASI advisers about his immigration status, and volunteered to serve without pay as president, since his status does not allow him to receive a paycheck," Cal State Fresno President John Welty said in a prepared statement.
Ramirez said he had run on a platform focused on giving students more of a voice and more services. He didn't think his personal situation was relevant to the campaign.
He spends about 30 hours a week going to meetings as a student representative. He is also involved in the Dream Network — an organization of undocumented students working for passage of the Dream Act, a proposed federal law that would allow students living in the U.S. illegally to earn legal status if they graduate from high school and complete two years in college or the military.
"He wanted to help with the network, but he also worried about doing anything that would expose him and affect his presidency. But I've been telling him the only way to deal with it is to come out and say who we are," said his friend Adrianna Sanchez, 22, who last month identified herself as an illegal immigrant honor student and questioned candidate Meg Whitman on her position on the Dream Act during a gubernatorial debate.
Democratic leaders in Congress have pledged to vote on the Dream Act before January.
Ramirez's exposure could not have come at a more contentious time.
On Monday, the California Supreme Court decided unanimously that illegal immigrants who graduated from state high schools can continue to receive lower, in-state tuition at California's public universities and colleges. It's the first state Supreme Court ruling of its kind in the nation.