Battle for immigration rights hits close to home

DOWNEY – Despite being just three-years-old at the time, Claudia Ramirez can clearly remember crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego with her family. Not only was she tired from the long journey, but she was confused.
“I kept asking my mom why we were running,” Ramirez said. “I wanted to know who was after us. I had the feeling we were maybe doing something we weren’t supposed to.” Eventually, Ramirez’s brother hoisted her onto his shoulders and carried her the rest of the way into the U.S.
Like many others who come to this country, the Ramirez family saw the U.S. as the land of opportunity and despite being here for 21 years, the 24-year-old Downey resident is in limbo, belonging neither here nor there because she is sin papeles - without papers. Undocumented immigrants are foreign nationals who either entered the U.S. without authorization or entered legally, but remained in the United States without authorization. As was the case with Ramirez, a majority of undocumented youth are brought to this country by their parents or other relatives and many have spent more years in the U.S. than in their country of origin. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, California’s undocumented population is the largest in the nation, with 2.6 million residing in the state.
Just a few years ago it would have been unheard of for an undocumented person to share their status publicly because of fear of deportation, but Ramirez is part of a growing movement of college students who proclaim that they are undocumented and unafraid. They are coming out of the shadows, sharing their stories and calling for immigration reform in the form of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the DREAM Act. Under the rigorous provisions of this bipartisan legislation, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a six-year-long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service. The individual will then be able to apply for Legal Permanent Residency and consequently, will be able to apply for United States citizenship.
The undocumented youth rallying around the DREAM Act are classified as AB 540 students. Assembly Bill 540 is a state law that was signed in 2001 and allows undocumented students and out of state U.S. citizens in California to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities if they attended a California high school for three years or more and graduated from a California high school or obtained a G.E.D. To become an AB 540 student, a person must be registered at a California college or university and fill out an affidavit form confirming they are a non-resident and that they will apply for adjustment of status as soon as they can.
The problem, according to Arely Zimmerman, is that the U.S. immigration and citizenship system no longer works for immigrants. Zimmerman is a Downey resident specializing in immigration issues who earned her PhD in Political Science from UCLA. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow at Annenberg’s School for Communication/Journalism at USC, where she is conducting research for the Media, Activism and Public Participation case studies project. The studies, which are funded by the MacArthur Foundation, are part of a larger national network of research studies seeking to highlight how young people are getting involved in their communities to make positive social change. The case study entitled, “Undocumented and Unafraid: Participatory Storytelling and Transmedia Activism amongst DREAM Activists” will highlight how undocumented youth are using social media tools to get their stories heard by the general public.
“Citizenship is no longer feasible for most immigrants, especially those from Latin America who migrated post-1990,” Zimmerman said. “The rate of naturalization for Mexicans and Salvadorans, which are the two largest Latino immigrant groups in Southern California, hovers around 20-30 percent. The DREAM Act is a piece of legislation that seeks to send a deserving group of young people on the path to citizenship. It would help address a small part of a much larger problem. California is one of the key states in the country and one of the few states that make it possible for undocumented students to attend college. We have to protect that right.”
Activists such as Ramirez are hoping that educating the public about the DREAM Act will clear up some of the myths that surround the bill, which was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate on May 11. According to the National Immigration Law Center, many Americans who oppose the bill believe that its passage would result in U.S. taxpayers having to cover the cost of education for undocumented students and that American students will lose spots in colleges, both of which are untrue. Even more troubling to Ramirez are the misperceptions that surround undocumented youth, namely that they are lazy and looking for a handout.
In elementary school, Ramirez attended LAUSD public schools, where she was swiftly placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. “I was terrified to talk and I didn’t speak at school for a year. I was shy and I had an accent. I was the only little brown girl at the school and I couldn’t express myself, so I learned to suppress my feelings,” Ramirez said.
Despite this initial bump in the road, school was Ramirez’s passion and she was earning straight A’s. When a member of her family’s church realized how enthusiastic she was about obtaining an education, he helped her get a scholarship to a private middle school, which eventually led to her high school years at an exclusive, private high school. The school cost $20,000 a year to attend and because of her good grades and hard work, Ramirez was given a scholarship. She continued to excel in the school’s demanding atmosphere, but by senior year her morale was crumbling. While Ramirez was waking up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to school, many of her classmates showed up late in their expensive cars or just didn’t show up at all. On the weekends while her classmates partied, she helped her mother clean houses to make ends meet. Her classmates were privileged in a way she couldn’t fathom and the divide between she and them seemed to grow further each day, but her dream of attending college was on the horizon and it kept her from feeling too defeated.
Ramirez intended to apply to Ivy League colleges like many of her classmates, but noticed that many of the applications required a social security number – something she did not have. She felt alone and though she was terrified to share her status with anyone at the school, she eventually reached out to her counselor for help. During a secretive meeting with Ramirez, her mother, and sister-in-law, the counselor helped Ramirez fill out the affidavit to become an AB 540 student and immediately, her dreams of the Ivy League were dashed. Ramirez would have to attend a California university and she would not be eligible for FAFSA or federal financial aid of any kind.
“Sometimes I feel like it was naïve of me to think I’d attend an Ivy League school, but I worked really hard and I wanted to dream big,” Ramirez said. “At that age you don’t think anything’s going to stop you – until it does. To this day, I might be the only undocumented student that went through that high school’s doors.”
Ramirez ended up attending Cal State Long Beach, where she got involved with various social justice groups and began fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act. Last year Ramirez achieved her dream of graduating from college when she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in sociology. Currently, she has her sights set on grad school.
“I knew I would struggle without papers, but I see my education as an investment in my future – wherever it leads. I think if people knew how passionate and hard working AB 540 students are, it would change their minds about immigration reform. They don’t know the potential they’re denying,” Ramirez said.
Each year, 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from California high schools and without the passage of the DREAM Act, Ramirez and Zimmerman believe the U.S. is letting these young people fall through the cracks. Teachers, counselors and other trusted adults often fail to inform the undocumented youth in their communities that there are opportunities to pursue higher education in the state of California. Those young people who bravely decide to dedicate themselves to school must face a daunting reality: They are doing so without the promise of financial aid and with the understanding that they won’t be able to practice their degrees because they cannot legally work in this country.
“The DREAM Act is important because it will give really outstanding young people a chance to give back to their communities in a positive way, instead of keeping them in the shadows of our society,” Zimmerman said. “Ultimately, it’s all about education. If we really are a country of opportunity, we will realize that the DREAM Act symbolizes everything that is good about this country.”

For another viewpoint, read "DREAM Act is an Amnesty Bill America Cannot Afford."
Published: June 9, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 8