Devastated by the Senate’s failure last week to grant them a path to citizenship, undocumented young people throughout California are vowing renewed activism to win legal immigration status if they attend college or serve in the military.
With the highest number of undocumented young people in the nation, California is already the epicenter for student advocacy on the issue and for legal breakthroughs granting them in-state tuition. Now the students — and their supporters — say they will train their sights on electoral change and a state legislative effort to give them access to college financial aid, which appears likely to succeed under newly elected Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
“We are still going to be pushing forward,” said Carlos Juarez, 21, a UCLA sociology major whose family brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was less than a year old.
In high drama last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill, known as the DREAM Act, that would have granted legal status to potentially hundreds of thousands of immigrants under age 30 who attend college or serve in the military. But in the Senate, the measure, formally the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, fell five votes short of advancing to the floor for a vote, as opponents attacked the bill as amnesty for lawbreakers.
Advocates are glum about the bill’s revival in the near term; Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed it, will take control of the House of Representatives next month. But some say that such gloomy prognosticators may be in for a surprise.
Steve Kinney, a Republican pollster in Los Angeles, and Richard Land, a Republican who heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said some Republicans are open to a narrower legalization program for students and military enlistees that would not include their families.
No Republican legislator has yet stepped forward with concrete proposals for a more limited DREAM Act. Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said border security would take precedence over any other immigration issue.
“It is pointless to talk about any new immigration bills that grant amnesty, no matter how narrow, until we secure the border, since such bills will only encourage more illegal immigration,” Smith said in a statement.
President Obama and Latino lawmakers agreed during a private meeting Tuesday that comprehensive immigration reform aimed at legalizing millions of undocumented residents would be all but impossible before the 2012 elections. Instead, they concurred on the goal of staving off punitive measures targeting illegal migrants.
Advocates are more hopeful on the state level. California, for instance, is expected to move forward with a state DREAM Act that would allow undocumented public college students to receive state or campus financial aid.
The Legislature this year approved a measure to allow such aid, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown, during gubernatorial debates this year, said he would have signed the bill into law.
This year, the state Supreme Court upheld a California policy that allows undocumented immigrant students who are state residents to pay the lower in-state tuition rates. But without financial aid, many students say they struggle to pay their way.
Sofia Campos, an undocumented UCLA student whose family brought her to the U.S. from their native Peru when she was 6, said such a change in state law would help her piece together the money to complete college, which she is funding through private scholarships, summer office work and babysitting. Lack of funds caused her to miss one quarter.
“With tuition ever increasing, it would give us more hope and a push to continue,” said Campos, a Los Angeles resident majoring in political science and global studies.
Many DREAM Act supporters also said they would focus their energy on pushing for change through the ballot box. They said they would target lawmakers who voted against the measure, especially in states with significant Latino populations, including Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Activists noted that two national Spanish-language TV networks, Telemundo and Univision, interrupted normal programming to broadcast live coverage of the Senate vote and said that viewers would not forget those who voted for — and against — the measure.
Ira Mailman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that opposed the DREAM Act as a dangerous form of amnesty, downplayed such talk. “I don’t think there is any great groundswell for amnesty for illegal aliens,” he said.
Others, however, said lawmakers would be unwise to ignore the growing Latino electoral clout.
“The Republican Party must have a strategy to be competitive for the Latino voter or they will not sustain a majority for very long,” said Rick Tyler, spokesman for former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “That’s true in California, Texas and Florida and will become increasingly true in the country at large.”
Land and Kinney said many conservatives opposed the bill in part because they are strongly against any future legalization of parents or other adults who knowingly broke the law. But some are receptive to relief for young people brought here as children, who have worked hard to excel and are culturally American, they said.
“They didn’t bring themselves here, yet they worked their tail off to succeed,” Kinney said of the undocumented students. “In discussions with other conservative Republicans, you do sense a sympathy for kids as long as you don’t attach the parents or full citizenship” to any relief measure.
Barring the youth from any path to citizenship, as some conservatives propose, will probably be vehemently opposed by Democrats and immigrant advocates.
Meanwhile, the students say they will not give up.
“We’re going to keep working hard, keep doing good in school and never lose hope,” said Maria Duque, 19, the student body vice president at Fullerton College, who arrived with her parents from Ecuador when she was 5. “We know there will be another chance someday.”
Other undocumented students, including UCLA drum major David Cho, said they needed time to recover from their deep disappointment over the Senate’s action. Although some students vowed to fight on, Cho, who came to the U.S. from South Korea at 9, said he put his head on a friend’s shoulder and cried.
“I know I can find what was in me again, but I need some time,” Cho said. “That’s what I learned from our struggle: It takes courage and time.”
Special correspondent Diana Marcum contributed to this report.