Byline: Susan LaTempa
“Undocumented and Unafraid” is their slogan, and student activists will be out in force on the streets at downtown L.A.’s Immigration Reform March today.
Their presence is part of a bold embrace of visibility by the grassroots student immigration rights movement in the wake of last December's failed federal DREAM Act bill. (Liberty Hill has consistently supported student-led school reform including in-state tuition for undocumented college students.)
"The movement has changed dramatically," says David Cho, who graduated four weeks ago with a double major from UCLA and is the founder and co-chair of the campus organization ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education). David, the first Korean American and first undocumented student to lead the UCLA marching band as a drum major, has received national attention and his story has been told on CNN and the U.S. Senate floor; he first spoke out publically two years ago on L.A.'s City Hall steps at the May 2010 march.
He remembers being so afraid that the night before the rally, he wrote his will and a good-bye letter to friends and family. But, he says, "I didn't want to sit down and let others do the work for me. I'm a hard worker and if it's going to benefit me and so many other students, I'm going to speak out."
"At that time, not many students were speaking out because they were so afraid," says David. "Now thousands of students are speaking out, saying, 'This is not right. We came here when we were young. We can do so much for this society and this economy.'"
ASPIRE and the larger, mostly Latino/a, UCLA student group IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success) are among the many youth organizations continuing the struggle nationally and on the state level. "Currently we're working on two main projects," says David. "We are asking President Obama to stop the deportation of DREAM Act students and we are supporting the two new California bills, AB130 and AB131, sponsored by Assemblymember Gilbert Cedillo."
That first strategy has been articulated by politicans as a kind of harm-reduction tactic in the absence of a national policy. In mid-April, 22 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Obama supporting "a grant of deferred action to all young people who meet the rigorous requirements necessary to be eligible for cancellation of removal or a stay of removal under the DREAM Act." And, while waiting for a clear, consistent national policy, some Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in various parts of the country are holding off on deportations of students.
Meanwhile, the proposed California legislation would allow undocumented students who otherwise meet California residency requirements for in-state tuition to be eligible for certain financial aid packages provided that they affirm by affidavit that they have either applied for legal immigration status or intend to do so as soon as eligible.
UC Berkeley sophomore Linda Sanchez, who's from Anaheim, lived in Mexico until, when she was nine, her grandmother could no longer take care of her and she was sent to join her parents in the U.S. As an ambassador for the Bay Area organization Educators for Fair Consideration she makes presentations at high schools, and she's also involved with the campus group RISE (Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education).
"At first all our efforts and activism were going into the passage of the federal DREAM Act," she says, "but now we've changed our strategies and decided to focus on the California act and on gaining awareness to get other students involved."
She too, sees changes in the movement, and a returning momentum. "Some students," she says, "are becoming more radicalized. They're demanding, not wanting to compromise."
Linda's goal is to go to law school, and she lays out an ambitious plan for someone whose immigration status would seem to make the future look complicated and uncertain. After law school, she says, "I have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, just in case. And after that I have a different plan."
How does she find the strength and hope to be a high-achieving student and a student activist, inspiring others while knowing that her immigration status could result in her world being upended? "It's scary, but it's something we have to go through," she says of herself and other undocumented students.
"There are always other options. We have to think of other options. We're already limited by circumstances we didn't make. If we just conform, we'll never live up to our dreams."
Liberty Hill was an early and effective supporter of DREAM Act students through its grantmaking to the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). CHIRLA's Wise Up youth group was among those advocating for the 2002 California AB540 legislation that enabled undocumented students who'd been living in California for three or more years to qualify for resident tuition rates at the state's colleges and universities. Since 2006, Liberty Hill has awarded nearly $750,000 to AB540 students struggling to pay for an education at Cal State L.A., Cal State Dominguez Hills, UC Berkeley and UCLA. For more information, check our Scholarships and Stipends Programs page.