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.
Some 825,000 out of 2.1 million students who could be eligible would be likely to obtain permanent legal status, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization. California has by far the largest number of potential beneficiaries, 553,000.
The bill was first introduced in 2001, but it has just been in the last two years — particularly the last two months — that a significant number of students who had gone to great lengths to protect their secret have been revealing their immigration status.
“There’s a feeling that it’s now or never. With all this anti-immigration sentiment growing, if it doesn’t pass in the lame duck session of Congress, it might be years and years,” said Ernesto Zumayo, a UCLA senior and Dream activist.
So the college sons and daughters of gardeners, nannies, and factory and field workers are stepping from the shadows and onto the stage.
“Their greatest concern about revealing their identities was never themselves, but their families,” said Zumayo, 24. “Now the feeling is that if they don’t speak out to help pass the Dream Act, what did their families sacrifice for?”
Zumayo’s mother brought him to the U.S. from Ensenada, Mexico, when he was 18 months old. He grew up in East L.A. and is the only one in his family to attend college. He was 8 or 9 when he first heard of UCLA and decided that someday he would go there.
Before transferring, he was student body president at Rio Hondo College in Whittier. He confided to very few people that he was an illegal immigrant. Close friends pressured him to speak out. He balked before going public.
“I didn’t want this label on me where people would suddenly think I didn’t count,” he said. “I felt sad when the Fresno State student body president was forced to come out as undocumented. I know the trauma, the inner conflict. But I kept thinking about my mother coming over here. She was 21.”
Now, Zumayo said, it’s all building to a finale. “Congress is about to vote. I’m about to graduate. If it doesn’t pass....” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
Bryon Castillo, 31, is a cook at a restaurant in Fresno. He has a bachelor’s degree in social work he can’t use.
He was smuggled into the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 11. He didn’t realize he had no Social Security number until he tried to apply to college. He went to the Army recruiting station and found they couldn’t take him either.
“I ended up in construction work and washing dishes,” he said.
In 2001, when California passed AB 540, which allows undocumented California students to pay in-state rather than out-of-state tuition, Castillo went back to school. He worked a full-time job and two part-time jobs while attending Cal State Fresno and interning at a community college.
“I wanted to help students from around here transfer to four-year schools, get them into a school environment,” he said. “I kept thinking something would happen with the immigration laws by the time I graduated.”
It didn’t. Recently, Castillo had to pass up a management job at the restaurant because he was afraid they would find out his status.
“People at work are always saying, ‘What are you doing here, man? You’re so smart. You have your degree.’ I tell them, ‘My passion is cooking!’ It’s not. I went to school to get out of the kitchen, but you have to play it off, you know?”
He said he’s awed by the latest wave of undocumented students who have gone public with their status.
“They’ve got, like, these insane GPAs, they run for office and work, and they stand up and say who they are,” he said. “Personally, I lost hope for myself, but I haven’t lost hope for them.”
Marcum is a special correspondent.