Ever since he was 8 years old, Luis Perez has dedicated his life to becoming an American.
In grade school, days after his arrival from Mexico, he studied hard to master English — it quickly displaced Spanish as his dominant language.
FOR THE RECORD:
Undocumented law grad: In his column in the Nov. 26 Section A, Hector Tobar wrote that his subject, Luis Perez, the first undocumented immigrant to graduate from UCLA's law school, planned to take the bar exam in January. The next testing dates for the California bar are in February. —
As a teenager he woke up every morning at 5:30 a.m. for a long bus trip across the San Fernando Valley, away from a neighborhood with a bad gang problem, to a high school where being a studious young man didn't make him a social outcast.
When he eventually made it to college, it was the U.S. Constitution that grabbed hold of him, especially the Bill of Rights. And this year, his study of American institutions culminated with his graduation from UCLA School of Law.
Today, at age 29, Luis Perez has the right to call himself a juris doctor. But he can't yet call himself an American. In fact, because he's an undocumented immigrant, it will take an act of Congress to change that. But that hasn't stopped him from trying.
"People used to tell me, 'Why go to college if you can't get a real job when you graduate,'" he said. With no right to work for a large company or law firm, it seemed that only jobs in construction and or yardwork awaited him, no matter how educated he was.
"If I had listened to those people, I wouldn't have done anything with my life," he told me.
Perez is the first undocumented immigrant to graduate from UCLA's law school. He's taking the bar exam in January. "I'm spending my Christmas with the books," he told me.
If he passes that test, with its questions about contracts, property, torts, criminal law and many other topics, Perez will have completed a most unlikely journey.
His story is at once inspiring and also maddening, because it's a reminder of just how broken our immigration system is. Among other things, its failed policies have given us hundreds of thousands of people like Perez who are Americans, culturally speaking, but who don't have the legal right to live here.
Perez was born in Guadalajara. He remembers going hungry there, and also teachers who doled out corporal punishment. "I value education because I had a really bad experience with education in Mexico," he told me.
Then, as now, a better life and low-wage jobs awaited his parents on the U.S. side of the border.
But there was no legal way for poor families like his to get here — to obtain U.S. tourist visas, residents must present proof that they have bank accounts, property or a business.
"There is no line for people like my family," Perez said. His grandmother's been trying to get a tourist visa to visit her grandchildren in the U.S. for 20 years without success, he said.
Growing up in the Valley, Perez has always known that he and his family were living on the margins of the law.
"It was traumatic," he said of his surreptitious border crossing, near San Diego. "Those memories are hard to forget. I was old enough to know that it wasn't a safe thing to do."
He saw it all through the eyes of an 8-year-old. He remembers the "coyote" smuggler who picked him up and carried him over a shallow creek. Once across, he spent an hour hidden inside a large tractor wheel.
In L.A., his father worked construction, his mother as a nanny. And as he grew into an adolescent, a teenager and finally into a young adult, Perez looked to anyone who met him like just another smart kid from the Valley.
But in the back of his mind, he knew he didn't belong. So he worked his tail off to prove that he did. And to understand how he might eventually belong, he studied the law.
"Most students experience law school as a trade school," said Saul Sarabia, an administrator at UCLA School of Law. "They learn doctrines, rules and apply them to a set of theoretical situations. But in Luis' case, his entire future turns on whether a law can become reality."
The great hope for Perez, and for thousands of others like him, is the Dream Act, a bill that would grant a path to legal residency for undocumented immigrants who graduate from college or serve honorably in the military.
President Obama has called on Congress to pass the Dream Act before the end of the year.
Unfortunately, there are also many media commentators, and an army of Internet scribes, dedicated to slurring the name of people like Luis Perez. They want to convince you that the Dream Act is a bad idea.
For them, no insult is too extreme, no stereotype too crude, because of the single word they can attach to Perez's name: illegal. They make up false statistics, and focus on the crimes of the few to taint the many.
Perez has heard all their arguments, and he's ready with a lawyerly riposte.
"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."