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Students want the Dream Act to become reality

With Congress expected to vote soon on immigration reform, a new generation of undocumented scholars who were raised in California are shedding their secrecy and speaking about their lives.

November 28, 2010|By Diana Marcum, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The student body president at Cal State Fresno. The drum major at UCLA. Student senators, class presidents, team captains and club officers at community colleges.

Scores of student leaders across California are illegal immigrants who came to this state as children.

With Congress expected to vote as early as this week on immigration reform that would give these students a pathway to legal status, a new generation of scholars who were raised in California but not born here are shedding their secrecy and speaking about their lives.

They have a sense of urgency. If the bill, known as the Dream Act, does not pass before a more conservative Congress takes power in January, it is unlikely to pass for years to come.

"At first my parents said, 'What are you doing? You're risking so much,' " said David Cho, the UCLA drum major. "But I told them, 'It's not only me. There are thousands of students like me trapped in a broken system. Unless our generation speaks out, the politicians won't tackle it. They have to see our faces.' "

Cho, 21, who conducts the 250-member UCLA marching band in front of 75,000 people at the Rose Bowl, came to the U.S. from South Korea at the age of 9. It wasn't until he was accepted to UCLA that his father showed him a letter saying the family's visa wasn't valid.

"I grew up here, worked hard, got into UCLA. And there I was staring at this letter telling me to go 'home,' when this is home," Cho said. "My whole world flipped upside down."

With no papers, Cho can attend school but not legally work, drive or receive financial aid. He sleeps on a friend's couch or sometimes at the UCLA library. He tutors SAT students 30 hours a week for cash. More than once he's depended on charitable "food closets" on campus to get something to eat.

He has a double major in international economics and Korean, maintains a 3.6 grade-point average and is on schedule to graduate a quarter early. He plays seven musical instruments.

He was terrified the night before he first stood at a rally in Los Angeles for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act and said: "I'm undocumented."

"I didn't know what would happen to me. Maybe I'd be deported," he said. "It seems funny now, but I wrote a will — a long, last letter to my family and friends."

Two weeks ago, when an anonymous tip forced Cal State Fresno student body president Pedro Ramirez to admit he is an illegal immigrant, it caused a national furor.

But William Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who specializes in education and immigration, said undocumented student leaders are not uncommon.

He followed a group of 200 undocumented students primarily in California from high school through college and found that 78% held some sort of leadership position, from editor of the yearbook to captain of a sports team. Twenty-nine percent had a role in student government. Twelve percent were student body presidents.

"It wasn't what I was expecting to find. We always hear that poverty and legal struggles are predictors of academic failure," Perez said.

"I was scratching my head. I double-checked and triple-checked my numbers. But the more I presented my research, the more I came to believe this is the way the students expressed their American self-identity. People were telling them, 'You don't belong. You can't contribute.' This was their way of refuting that."

Maria Duque, 19, student body vice president at Fullerton College, has always been open about her illegal immigrant status. It was part of her platform when she ran for office.

"Speaking out and not being afraid is the only way of bringing change and a better life for my family, myself and all the others like me," she said.

Duque's parents, an accountant and a medical equipment supplies saleswoman, brought her to the U.S. at the age of 5 when Ecuador's economy collapsed. They lived in a garage the first year. Her father worked nights and her mother days in a furniture factory. From kindergarten on, Duque got herself ready for school each morning. She graduated from high school with a 4.4 GPA.

"I'm working so hard for the Dream movement.... I wouldn't say I get discouraged, but sometimes I get tired," she said.

"My dad always gets me back up. He constantly says, 'Juventud que no hace temblar al mundo no es juventud — youth that doesn't make the world tremble is no youth.' "

The Dream Act would give legal residency to immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, resided in the U.S. for at least five years, graduated from high school and completed two years of college or honorable military service. They would be subject to background checks and could not have a criminal record. Even if granted residency, they would not be eligible for federal grant scholarships. When enacted, the law would apply to those under 35.

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