By Einar Sevilla
Twenty-year-old Raul Barrera says graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and is a dedicated employee, but he barely makes ends meet. His City College tuition is equivalent to one month’s salary at his construction job in Oakland and he struggles to cover the rent for a room he shares with his girlfriend, Elsa Ramos. The Internet is their only luxury.
Barrera, who came to the U.S. illegally in 2007, should be a perfect candidate for the new California Dream Act. The Dream Act, made up of Assembly Bills 130 and 131, was signed by Governor Jerry Brown this year and will allow undocumented students to receive both public and private scholarships and grants.
In order to qualify for the California Dream Act students must meet certain requirements. They must have attended a California high school for a minimum of three years, must have earned a diploma or GED, and must file an affidavit with their college or university stating that they intend to apply for legal immigrant status.
But when the California Dream Act finally takes effect in January of 2013 for many students, including Barrera, it will be too late.
One of Many
When Barrera was 10 years old his family life began to fall apart. With the death of his older bother Juan Carlos, Barrera began to sink into depression. By age 13 he was in a downward spiral of sex, drugs and alcohol abuse.
His uncle, who lives in the U.S. was worried about Barrera’s destructive behavior and offered him the opportunity to study in San Francisco. Now all he had to do was get there.
So in 2007, at the age of 16, he left his hometown of Vera Cruz, Mexico to come to the United States illegally.
He successfully crossed the U.S. border, but was abandoned by the “coyote” his had uncle paid to guide him.
Traveling north through the desert, Barrera was lost and desperately looking for water when an American woman found him. She quenched his thirst, but also called immigration officials who immediately arrested him.
In his cell Barrera was treated like an animal. “I lost my identity in there,” he says. He was repeatedly denied water and only given a salty cookie to eat making thirst worse.
He remembers it like this: he wasn’t seen as a human being, but as a stray dog trapped in the pound.
Returning Not an Option
Shortly after being deported to Tijuana, Barrera was walking down the street when a small group of Federals approached him. Barrera feared he was about to be arrested, but before he could react he was thrown into a cab by an unfamiliar woman.
She told Barrera that he was about to get beat up and robbed by the Federals and that by pushing him into the cab she had saved him.
She asked him if he was looking to cross the border and he immediately said yes. Within a few hours, Barrera found himself with a small group at the opening of a sewer system leading into the United States. They undressed and placed their clothing in plastic bags to keep them dry.
“It was the most disgusting experience I ever had,” Barrera said. “The water smelled like sulfur.”
But it was worth it. As he crawled through the raw sewage, Barrera thought of it as a baptism. A new beginning.
“I wanted to renew my life,” he said, looking away as he spoke.
At once point Barrera was spotted in the muck by border patrol agents who commanded him to come out. He kept crawling and eventually the border police gave up.
“They didn’t want to get their fancy clothes dirty.” he said.
He took his free pass and never looked back.
A New Beginning
Once in San Francisco, Barrera’s uncle pushed him to value education.
Barrera easily enrolled at John O’Connell High School of Technology. He only had to show his middle school transcript and get the neccessary vaccinations.
He excelled in school, graduating with a 3.8 GPA.
Since San Francisco prides itself on being a safe haven for undocumented immigrants, Barrera was never scared nor embarrassed to talk openly about being an undocumented student.
According to those who knew him Barrera was a very shy young man, but when he did speak it was profound.
He involved himself in the community. In 2008 he interned at People Organizing to Demand Economic/Environmental Rights (PODER SF) a local non-profit. This is where Barrera began to find himself, gain a sense of family, and realize his potential.
College seemed unreal to him until he sat in on a presentation explaining the possibilities of education for undocumented students. This was where he first learned of AB 540 and realized he could actually go to college.
Assembly Bill 540 allows qualified undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition, saving them thousands of dollars.
He saved money for two years as a day laborer in order to attend college at Cal Poly Pomona where he planned to major in Economics, but later decided to change majors. He came to City College of San Francisco where he hopes to transfer to San Francisco State and major in international relations
His Dream is Not California’s Dream
“I won’t benefit from the Dream Act,” Barrera said indifferently. He’s not alone.
Predictions estimate that only 2500 students will actually benefit from the California Dream Act, although many more undocumented students are in need. Not all undocumented students in California meet the stringent requirements of the Dream Act.
And of the $1.4 billion budget for institutional grants, undocumented students will only receive roughly 1%.
Those that do qualify for the Dream Act will not see any aid until it takes effect January 1, 2013.
Barrera doesn’t let the challenges of his immigration status deter him as he strives to make changes in a country that doesn’t accept him.
Barrera was inspired by his brother, who was a politically-aware, respected member of the community in Mexico. It seems only natural Barrera would aspire to do the same here in the U.S.. As he continues his education and activism, he has become more vocal and more passionate.
He serves a dual role in his community. He teaches undocumented high school students the necessary steps to apply to be recognized as AB 540, paving their way to a college degree. At City College’s VIDA organization (Voices for Immigrants Demonstrating Achievement), he helps undocumented students of all ages fill out their paperwork.
After receiving his B.A., Barrera plans to travel to Cuba to become a doctor, stating a need to help the world in tangible ways.
He knows that there is not much work for an undocumented person in the U.S. but says “you can take those degrees anywhere.”
But if he leaves the U.S. he could face the possibility of never being able to return to his adopted home. He dreads deportation or another jail sentence.