By Peter Hernandez
Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s incarceration of City College student Steve Li last fall thrust the crusade of undocumented students into the national spotlight, putting the possible relief offered by a federal DREAM Act into sharp focus.
Although the federal DREAM act has repeatedly died in congress, a similar piece of state legislation was reintroduced into the Calif. Assembly Jan. 11.
The federal DREAM Act would have granted citizenship to those who immigrated before the age of 16 and are younger than 30, provided they attend college or serve in the military and are of “good moral character.” The House of Representatives passed the most recent incarnation of the DREAM Act in December 2010 but the bill stalled in the Senate after failing to secure 60 votes.
The California DREAM Act, proposed by Gil Cedillo (D-Calif.), would go into effect July 1 this year if Gov. Jerry Brown signs it into law. The bill would grant financial aid to undocumented students who have attended high schools, technical schools, or adult schools in California. Those eligible would be required to apply for legal residency.
“Scholarships are hard to come by,” a member of City College’s AB 540 club said — who requested her identity be withheld because of her undocumented immigration status. She believes state law has compelled many students to clamor over scholarships, leaving few opportunities for undocumented students.
She is one of eight students in City College’s AB 540 Club, named after a bill that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rather than much higher cost out-of-state tuition at California’s higher education institutions.
“AB 540 has been a big relief for me, but it’s still frustrating,” she said. “I want to go to UC Berkeley but I can’t get most scholarships. It’s been hard to pursue my education.”
Li, a City College nursing student, made headlines when he was taken into custody with his parents by ICE in September 2010 and spent more than two months at a detention center in Arizona. He was granted a three-month stay on Nov. 20, 2010.
His case compelled educators from City College, San Francisco State University and University of California Los Angeles to stage call-ins and to write letters to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Rallies were held on the City College Ocean campus and at Sen. Boxer’s office, and more than 600 people supported Li on a Facebook page.
His case is not isolated in San Francisco. Elizabeth Lee, a City College student with an undeclared major, was arrested with her mother and faced deportation on Jan. 19. She was granted an extension and her case will be reevaluated in July.
“There are lots of intelligent students who are facing deportation and could give back to the community,” the AB 540 student noted.
The federal DREAM Act will be reintroduced during congressional sessions this year. The bill is perceived as having little potential to pass in the Republican-majority House of Representatives.
“It will be especially difficult with our new Congress. The chance is slim that it will actually pass,” said Sin Yen Ling, the attorney who represented Li during his detention in Arizona.
Ling, an attorney from Asian Law Caucus, is now working with more than 20 individuals who would qualify for the DREAM Act and currently face deportation. The civil and legal rights organization is based in San Francisco and encourages advocacy through the group Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education, which seeks to mobilize AB 540 youth and to educate local colleges, high schools and community based organizations.
“Steve Li’s case was not the first, and it will not be the last.” Ling said. “These have become common cases.”