California Dream Act offers young illegal immigrant a morale boost

His middle name is Diego, so I’m going to call him that, and I’ll tell you he’s 23. But if I give away too much identifying information, he’s sure to lose his job.

Or worse.

Diego, who works in retail, was born in Mexico and got some tough news when he was 8. His parents couldn’t find enough work to pay the bills, so they were leaving the kids behind and heading to the United States. Diego and his two little sisters stayed with their grandmother in Oaxaca for a year until they got the call to move to California.

In Tijuana, they met up with a man who drove them across the border and up to Los Angeles. Diego had no idea that that man was a coyote, or even what a coyote was. All he knew was that a few hours later, he was finally reunited with his parents.

The land of dreams, though, wasn’t quite what he’d expected it to be.

His family’s new home was in South-Central, and 9-year-old Diego soon learned about gunfire and drive-bys. In elementary school, he learned English quickly, but he recalls being razzed by students for asking the teacher, “Miss, can I pencil my sharpen?”


His family used a relative’s Westside address to get Diego into a good middle school, but the commute by bus ate up hours every day. By then, he’d learned he was an illegal immigrant, and that it was best to keep that a secret. On the Westside, he sometimes found himself defending kids from South-Central. In South-Central, he did the reverse, chipping away at easy assumptions and stereotypes.

He didn’t just feel like he was an L.A. kid, Diego told me, moving comfortably among its vastly different worlds.

“I felt like I was L.A.”

When his parents split up, Diego moved to Oregon briefly to be with his mother. He later returned to the South Broadway area to live with his father and attend Jefferson High, just as the school was erupting in violence between African Americans and Latinos.

Even though Diego was then in what he calls his “knucklehead” years, tagging with a crew because that’s just what you did “if you didn’t want to get punked,” he tried to play peacemaker at Jefferson. He formed a chapter of the Brown Berets and included African American students, though he doubts the group had much of an impact.

Diego, who later went to community college and wants to be a graphic artist, told me his story last week in the L.A. City College library, where he had just watched Gov. Jerry Brown sign L.A. Assemblyman Gil Cedillo’s Dream Act legislation into law. The act made illegal immigrants eligible for privately funded college scholarships.

Diego told me he has conservative friends who think it’s wrong for the government to do anything for illegal immigrants, particularly with the economy smacked and public programs shrinking. He also has lefty friends who think the legislation Brown signed is a farce because it doesn’t go nearly far enough. A pending Dream Act bill would make illegal immigrants eligible for state-funded scholarships, too, but its passage is no sure thing.

Diego respects both perspectives. But his life and his experience are his own, he told me. He’s not a political talking point, but a young man who is in a paralyzing bind through no fault of his own. He said he thinks of himself not as an illegal immigrant “but an economic refugee.”

He got his retail job with a fake Social Security number, so he’ll never collect on that investment and, if he’s found out, he’ll lose the job. It’s happened to him before.

For him, the Dream Act signing offered a morale boost, if not an answer to his problems.

“I wanted to have that step forward for all of us,” Diego said of the estimated 35,000 California college students who are undocumented.

Those who argue that illegal is illegal, period, have a point. But people like Diego are caught up in our loony and hypocritical immigration policies. We’re legally obligated to educate them and care for them when they’re sick or injured. But after making that investment in their futures, we limit their ability to pay back, even though we’re in desperate need of manufacturing new taxpayers to buy houses and support Social Security, and the like, for a rapidly aging population.

Sure, unemployment is up, but will the job situation ever pick up again, asks Cedillo, if we don’t invest in educating the best and brightest so we can compete globally? California’s Dream Act has been knocked for offering educational support to kids who can’t legally work here. Cedillo argues that immigration status can change, but education is forever.

I’d take it a step further. Go ahead and stop illegal immigration at the border. But Congress should pass a federal Dream Act that offers visas to college students who, as of 2011, have been here for more than a decade and didn’t come by choice, as long as they speak English, have clean records and maintain passing grades.

When he was in high school, Diego was one of several dozen students invited to work on a photographic documentary about the conversion of the landmark Ambassador Hotel into a new school. Bill Bowling, one of the Hollywood location managers who ran that project, said Diego made such an impression that he and his colleagues immediately pitched in to fund the scholarship that sent Diego to community college.

“He was such a standout,” said Bowling, who said he doesn’t particularly care that Diego has no papers. “I’m not political that way. It seems to me if someone’s a great person, you have to support that.”

Diego, said Bowling, is “a gem” with a bright future, if only we’d let him work for one.