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Dreams put on hold for many illegal immigrant students

The defeat of Senate legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant students set off deep disappointment among many of them Thursday as they scrambled to figure out their futures.

"It keeps so many doors closed," said Cesar Gomez, 21, a Cal State San Bernardino student in industrial psychology. Gomez, who attained a 3.9 grade-point average at his Los Angeles high school, said he would probably have to take his skills back to his native Mexico after graduation.

That, he said, would deprive U.S. society of his bilingual skills, his strength in science and a work ethic that drove him to work his way through school at a construction firm.

Jorge Romero, 25, a Cal State L.A. student who asked that his full name not be used, said the bill's failure would probably compel him to start his own business after graduation rather than offer his talents to a U.S. firm.

Romero, an economics major who earned a 3.3 high school GPA and volunteered as a math and reading tutor at the public library, had been accepted to six University of California campuses but could not afford the tuition.

"There's no hope for me getting a job after I graduate, so the best thing is for me to create my own job," he said.

The two young men are among an estimated 20,000 illegal immigrant college students in California, more than in any other state. Most of them attend community colleges. Their ranks include between 340 and 630 of the UC system's 200,000 students, according to Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of UC Berkeley.

There are no clear estimates for the California State University system, but officials say they comprise "hundreds" of its 417,000 students.

The specter of illegal immigrants' receiving subsidized public education and coveted spots at premier state universities infuriates some, however.

"Seats at state universities are valuable finite resources, and for every [illegal immigrant] kid who gets in, that's one fewer legal immigrant or American who does not get in," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

While the children may have been brought to the United States through no fault of their own, Mehlman said, "it was their parents who knowingly broke the law and put them in that situation. We're very sorry, but they have to deal with it."

But UC Berkeley's Birgeneau said bilingual, bicultural, academically gifted immigrant students are precisely the kind of talent California needs to succeed in the global economy. Children of illegal immigrants who make it into California colleges are particularly impressive, he said, because they've had so many obstacles to overcome.

And many know only the United States as their home, having left their native countries at very young ages, he said.

"We live in an extremely competitive world internationally, and it's simply wasteful of California not to take advantage of their talent," Birgeneau said.

The legislation, known as the Dream Act, would have offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who had served in the military or completed two years of higher education and who had lived in the United States for at least five years, entered the country before age 16, graduated from high school, compiled no criminal record and demonstrated "good moral character."

The vote on the proposal Wednesday was 52-44, short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster and begin debate.

Immigrant advocates said Thursday that they would continue to press for passage, though probably as part of a comprehensive measure that would also toughen border and workplace enforcement and increase family and work visas.

Activists also planned to continue public advocacy and education on the issue. In Los Angeles, the bill's supporters plan to hold a mock graduation ceremony Nov. 7, featuring students in caps and gowns holding placards saying, "Now what?" to signify their lack of work prospects, according to Anike Tourse, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

She said critics primarily focus on the bill's education benefits without acknowledging that it could also help the military recruit needed soldiers.

"It's very frustrating," Tourse said of the Senate action, "but it's not breaking our spirits. It's only a matter of time before the measure passes."

For some students, however, time is running out.

Wilbur, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said his father was picked up by immigration agents a month ago after a political asylum request was rejected and was scheduled for deportation to his native Peru this week.

The family asked for anonymity because they feared immigration agents could soon come after them, as well.

But Wilbur, 20, a UCLA junior in political science, said Peru held no future for him because of the paucity of professional jobs and widespread corruption. He was brought to the United States at age 7, earned a 3.6 GPA at his Pasadena high school, played varsity soccer and won a community service scholarship for initiating a tutoring program for children.

Now struggling to manage his academic workload, his father's gardening business and family obligations to his mother and younger sibling, he said the Dream Act was his only hope for a future.

"We're not trying to ask for money; we just want an opportunity to work because we've been here all of our lives," he said. "It's really disappointing and sad, because we represent the best and brightest immigrants of this era."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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