Underground, Undocumented Undergraduates Dream Big

The United States is a land where people of different ethnic backgrounds come to achieve what this country is most famously known for: the American Dream. It is a dream echoed in many homes of first generation Americans and is usually pursued by immigrants, people who are not born in America, but nevertheless come to America, work hard and make this country what it is today. It is the opportunity to make individual choices without the restrictions of class, caste, religion, race or ethnic group. Even though you might identify yourself as an American, raised for the majority of your lifetime in Los Angeles or Orange County, there is still one giant roadblock to this dream for a mass minority: immigration status.
Last week’s Rainbow Festival, presented by the UC Irvine Cross-Cultural Center, featured Underground Undergrads, a teach-in on immigrant students and their struggle to create political change. The event, led by UCLA graduate Matias Ramos and UCI graduate Angela Chen, featured the growing student movement around access to higher education for undocumented students. The event was also part of the 2008 fall campus book tour, where a group of undocumented students from UCLA share their stories of financial hardship and emotional distress in a publication entitled “Underground Undergrads.” These students have since been at the forefront of organizing for the passage of state and federal Dream Acts and lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform across the country.
However, a lingering feeling of shame is still prevalent. As one undocumented student at UCI explains, “Why am I breaking the law? I am told that it’s not my fault that my parents came here illegally. It wasn’t my decision, and my parents tell me to keep your academics up.” So then the question becomes: should a student be penalized for actions committed by his or her parents?
One of the leaders of this student movement is Tam Tran, whose parents left Vietnam in 1980, fleeing war and political persecution triggered by the family’s anti-Communist activities. Along the way, they were picked up by a German ship leading to six years spent in Germany, where Tran was born. In 1989, they immigrated to the U.S., where her family has struggled ever since.
Under Assembly Bill 540, Tran was able to pursue a higher education at UCLA. AB 540, passed in 2001, is a California law that allows out-of-state students and undocumented students who meet certain requirements to be exempt from paying nonresident tuition at all public colleges and universities in California. However, AB 540 does not give undocumented students access to state or federal financial aid, nor does it provide a venue to undocumented students for adjusting their immigration status.
Similar to Tran’s story is Grace Lee, whose parents moved to Los Angeles in 1998 when she was 11 years old. She was able to attend school via a newly purchased student visa and graduated high school with a 4.23 grade point average and valedictorian of her class. But her counselor couldn’t understand why this brilliant student was not applying to colleges.
Current law does not allow undocumented students to qualify for any financial aid regardless of their economic need. After encouragement from her counselor, Lee decided to apply and ended up getting admitted into UCLA. Her story reflects the pain of more than 50,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year, unaware of state policies that allow them to pay in-state tuition or who view college as financially inaccessible because they aren’t eligible for financial aid.
The California Dream Act, a state legislative proposal, would allow undocumented AB 540 students to apply for state and institutional financial aid without the use of the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). It would provide a path to legalization for students who were brought to the U.S. as children, completed their primary and secondary education in the U.S. and fulfilled other requirements pertaining to education.
Despite open support from the California State University Board of Trustee, the UC Regents and the California Community College Board of Governors, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has continually vetoed revised versions of The Dream Act; his latest veto took place on Oct. 13, 2007. Under current law, undocumented students who have earned degrees from the nation’s top universities are unable to use those degrees or the skills they learned to find legal employment. The Federal Dream Act, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), “would offer bright and highly motivated students a real incentive to become responsible and valued members of our society … they can continue their education, find a good job and give back something to the United States.”
For now though, the governor’s veto has left many highly motivated and undocumented students in a limbo state, like Veronica Valdez. Another UCLA graduate, she considers herself to have “achieved one component of the American dream: a great education.” Nevertheless, she is left without opportunities for jobs in which she can use her degree — a degree that took patience and perseverance, and began over 18 years ago in what she considers her home: the United States.