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Undocumented UCLA law grad is in a legal bind

His family crossed the border illegally when he was an 8-year-old, but he has done everything right since then. Will his adopted country now do right by him?

November 26, 2010|Hector Tobar

"Being undocumented is not a criminal issue, it's a civil issue," he said. "The law sees us not as lawbreakers but as people without legal status."

While he was still in high school, Perez lobbied state representatives for the passage of California Assembly Bill 540, which granted affordable, in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants.

After AB 540 became law in 2001, he enrolled at UCLA and eventually earned a B.A. in political science and then his law degree. He became a student leader and worked construction jobs on the weekends to help pay for his tuition. (He still holds a construction job, in part to pay off $3,000 in law school debt.)

The state Supreme Court upheld AB 540 earlier this month. To some Californians, giving undocumented immigrants an affordable college education is an act of generosity that we cash-strapped Californians can't afford.

But really, it's the smart thing to do.

The Dream Act would be another intelligent investment in our collective future. We'd get even more people like Perez, because the Dream Act would reward young people for making the choices he's made since the was 8: choosing education over ignorance, service over apathy.

"I'm not asking for anything," he said of his hope for legal status. "This is something I've earned. I've graduated from school, served my community and tried my best to reach my potential."

Even if he passes the bar, Luis Perez will probably need the Dream Act to become a practicing lawyer. Until then, he'll be in the same limbo he's always been in: an English-speaking, L.A.-raised kid, now educated in American law but unable to be an American.

For the time being he's embraced a slogan chanted by immigrant students at protests from Washington to Phoenix and Sacramento: "Undocumented and unafraid."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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