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Life After 187 : CSUN Student Looks Past Controversy to Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overnight, Vladimir Cerna went from being one of the most respected students on the Cal State Northridge campus to perhaps the most controversial.

Cerna, in October of last year, was a successful undergraduate student in the sociology department, a senator in the student body government and a valued student aide in the business department. Then, at the height of the political battle over Proposition 187, he revealed in a newspaper interview that he was also an illegal immigrant.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 22, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 1995 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Zones Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Photograph--A photograph of CSUN student Vladimir Cerna last Sunday, Oct. 15, included an American flag in the background that had a yellowish tint. This was a photo illustration and should have been labeled as such because colors were altered to create an effect.

The revelation spurred numerous hate letters and calls were directed at the university and Cerna found himself a target of outrage among pro-187 forces. Since then, there have been landmark changes in his life, including the fact that he and his family have now attained legal residency status.

He is still a student and employee at CSUN. Cerna, 22, talked about his life after Proposition 187, which would ban illegal immigrants from receiving public education, non-emergency health care and social welfare, and would require officials to report suspected illegal immigrants to authorities.

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Later this month, a federal judge is expected to make a key ruling on the constitutionality of the ballot measure, which has largely been enjoined by the courts.

The interview with Cerna took place outside the student union building, and was interrupted several times by students and faculty members stopping by to greet the soft-spoken student leader.

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Question: What was it like for you on the morning after the Proposition 187 vote?

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Answer: I could not believe it. I flipped on the television as soon as I woke up and there was the vote--80 to 20 percent. And then I had to go to class that morning.

I remember when I was walking down the street, I was looking at people and thinking, “Eight out of 10 of these people don’t want me here.” I would look at them and say to myself, “Is that one of the eight, is that one over there?”

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Q: Were there threats directly against you?

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A: Most of the hate calls came to the school, so there were only a couple of incidents that involved me. One time I was walking up on Lindley [Avenue] and a couple student athletes started walking with me. One of them says, “Dude, you campaigned against the sports referendum, didn’t you?”

[Cerna was one of the student leaders who opposed a controversial referendum earlier that year that would have levied a fee on students to help pay for the university’s football program.]

I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “You know, if you had not been here, we would have passed this.”

He was saying that if I had not been in this country, the referendum might have passed. I just tried to pass it off, but it made me feel so unwanted.

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I was in the student government, so I had got a lot of welcomes, a lot of doors opened for me. Now I was seeing the other side.

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Q: Your legal status has changed.

A: On July 17, this year, there was a hearing for my family. I had gotten letters from chairs of departments, deans and staff attesting to my character and saying what I had accomplished. I had grade report cards, police records, anything that would help. Our landlord went and testified on our behalf.

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The lawyer from the INS, who is supposed to argue against you, kept on asking why I couldn’t continue my school work in El Salvador. I gave figures on how much it costs to go to college there, how few people in the population have a BA [degree]. Many people can’t afford to go past the sixth grade.

I told them about my plans to get a Ph.D in sociology and teach.

It was clear to her I could not do this in El Salvador. At the end, she said she had no reason not to allow the family to stay.

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Q: What did the judge do?

A: He made a beautiful statement.

He said that when you take a young plant from the ground and put it in a pot, that plant can grow for years. The roots form. It expands. And it is unrealistic to expect that the plant can now be ripped from the pot and asked to adapt to the land it came from.

We had established roots in this country for 10 years. He knew it was unrealistic to send us back to El Salvador.

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Then he said, “I see no reason, by the power granted to me, that I should not grant you legal . . . “

[Cerna’s voice cracks with emotion and trails off.]

In that moment, the judge had not only us as individuals--my mom, my stepdad and me--but he had the whole family in his hands.

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Q: Did you ever see that judge again?

A: No. I suggested to my mom that we send him a thank you card, but the lawyer said it wasn’t customary.

Q: What is your status now?

A: [From his briefcase, he pulls out his passport and opens it to a page that has been stamped.]

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It takes six months to receive the actual card, so all I have is this stamp, showing that I am a legal, permanent resident. I carry it with me all the time, because you never know when someone might question you.

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Q: Has having that status changed your life?

A: The big thing for me is that now I am secure in believing I can finish my education. I can apply for financial aid, which I couldn’t do before.

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Q: Has it changed how people treat you?

A: The people who were arguing that I should not be allowed to stay, I don’t think it makes any difference to them. Even if I show them this stamp, it would not change their minds. They would still say things about me.

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Q: Is citizenship the next step for you?

A: Five years from when this was stamped, I can apply and I definitely want to do that. It would give me the right to vote.

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Q: Do you feel like an American, now?

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A: I think I’m getting there. I think that when the day comes that I can stand up beside anyone and be able to do the same things they do, legally, then I think I’ll feel that way.

Then, I can say I’m an American.


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