Victory for VIDA

Carlos Martinez reads a letter from Steve Lee on behalf of “VIDA” (Voices of Immigrants Demonstrating Achievement) in support of granting the office of mentoring and learning services $200,000 in grants to the board of trustees before their vote on Sept. 22, 2011. JOE FITZGERALD / THE GUARDSMAN

By Joe Fitzgerald
The Guardsman

Undocumented immigrant students at City College can now be legally hired by the school using a $200,000 fund from the new college budget approved on Thursday, Sept. 22, after a heated battle during the Board of Trustees meeting that night.

Originally $200,000 of the new $191 million 2011-2012 school year budget was set aside for access by undocumented students through the Office of Mentoring and Learning Services, an office run by City College. The money would fund internships and scholarships under California’s “Dream Act,” also known as bill AB540, a law allowing undocumented students to pay for college at in-state tuition rates.

The $200,000 is a small part City College’s multi-million dollar budget, and Board of Trustees President John Rizzo was about to take a vote to approve the college’s budget in its’ entirety without even mentioning the smaller fund once. Just as Rizzo lifted his gavel to begin the vote, student-elected Student Trustee Jeffry Fang piped in.

“I’d like to offer an amendment to this, one little change. This amendment is section 6, line A,” he said. The sounds of papers shuffling filled the room as audience members searched the fifty page document.

Fang asked that instead of having the $200,000 dollars set aside for undocumented students come only through the Office of Mentoring and Learning Services, that the language of the document be changed to include the Learning Assistance Center (which runs tutoring in the main library) and EOPS, the Extended Opportunity and Program Services.

“I made this amendment not because I want to deny anyone, because I was told, vehemently by the way, that this is for all students, low income, anyone. If this for all students, EOPS is in great need… EOPS and LAC does a lot for students,” Fang said.

Including those two departments in a single paragraph of the fifty-page budget that the crowd of students in the room had come to speak out against, ready to fight.

Fighting for scraps

The $200,000 is the only money in the entire school budget that would fund internships or scholarships for undocumented students.

No other money from the college has the possibility of reaching the hands of an AB540 (Dream Act) qualified student.

Trustee Fang’s amendment would have spread that money across three separate departments instead of one, effectively making undocumented students share the fund with the student body at large.

The already small pot of money for AB540 students would have gotten smaller.

Over 25 students crowded the small board meeting room at 33 Gough St. in order to oppose Fang’s amendment. Mostly assembled from a group called VIDA, or Voices of Immigrants Demonstrating Achievement, the students were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to oppose the amendment.

They came out of the closet, “outing” their immigration status.

“I come from Guatemala, I am not from here, I am an AB540 student,” said one student, referring to the bill number of California’s “Dream Act.”

Despite his choice to reveal his immigration status that night, The Guardsman is withholding his name for his protection.
He spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, unveiling his undocumented status to video cameras, the audience and the Board of Trustees.

“There isn’t a legal source for us to work. We all have to jump in trucks, we have to go out and search for a job. Passing this proposal will greatly contribute to my family, and to my tuition especially,” he said.

He wasn’t alone. Student after student approached the lectern to speak against Fang’s amendment, and many of them spoke of the challenges of being an undocumented student, unveiling their immigration status in a legal and recorded forum.
The last student to speak put it plainly. “This would allow me to pay for tuition that keeps increasing. This is not school level, this is a civil rights issue,” he said.

Living in fear

City College’s VP of Cultural Affairs Stephanie Oh also “came out” as undocumented that night.

“At the end of the day, I take off my badge and am like any ordinary student here, worrying about my tuition and my textbooks,” she said at the podium. “Also, I am an undocumented student.”

In an interview with The Guardsman, she spoke at length about what happened the night of the board meeting, and why she had a personal stake in the outcome.

Oh was born in Seoul, Korea, moved to Tacoma, Washington when she was 9, and moved to San Francisco with her family while in high school.

Currently as an undocumented student who doesn’t meet exacting requirements, Oh pays $213 a unit (versus in state fees of $36 a unit) for each of her classes. She is also ineligible for a whole range of grants, loans, and scholarships that documented students enjoy. Oh also cannot get legal employment.

“The VP of Cultural Affairs position I hold is a paid one,” she said. “Since I am undocumented though, the school isn’t allowed to pay me for the work I do.”

Most of her answers were given with shoulders held straight, in an official sounding demeanor. Near the end of the interview however, she said something startlingly honest.

“Growing up as an undocumented student, we had to live in fear,” she said. “I came out on Wednesday [as undocumented], when I saw everyone coming forward.”

When asked if she was afraid of the consequences of announcing her immigration status at the board meeting, she paused and looked away before answering.

“It’d be a lie to say I’m not scared. But I’m not in it alone,” she said.

Claws out for Fang

With the public session closed, it was time for the Board of Trustees to come to a decision on Fang’s amendment. In addition to voting aye or nay, each trustee took time to explain why they came to their decision.

Trustee Steve Ngo had stern words for Fang.

“The scholarships … give a chance to those students who are eligible who are also AB540. They don’t get any financial aid at all. They don’t get work, they don’t get Cal Grants, Pell Grants, nothing,” Ngo said to applause from the audience. “The fact that we’re making political hay when these students get nothing is disappointing.”

John Rizzo had to interrupt Steve Ngo at that point with, “Can we stop the hissing and booing from the audience? It’s not proper demeanor.”

Chancellor Griffin spoke bluntly about the amendment. “It’s micromanaging…we should not adopt this amendment. If we do, we should just hang up everything, give it up for grabs in terms of how we do business.”

Trustee Dr. Anita Grier spoke last, summing up the importance of the vote. “As I got to different cities and states, the question always is ‘what is San Francisco doing?’ We certainly do lead the way, and with that in mind, I think we should take the vote,” she said.

Trustees Steve Gno, Chris Jackson, John Rizzo and Anita Grier all voted “nay,” killing the amendment.

Trustee Wong was the only board member to support Fang’s amendment with an “aye” vote.

When all was said and done, Trustee President John Rizzo had one last point to make.

“I’m not going to support trustee Fang’s amendment, but I am going to support trustee Fang. He has every right to amend the budget…I’m not going to say this is micromanaging here. If trustee Ngo and I can insert this office, Trustee Fang can insert another office. You can’t have it both ways,” he said.

He wouldn’t be the only person defending Trustee Fang from a group of detractors that night.

Undocumented students celebrate

After the Trustee Fang’s amendment was defeated, the board meeting room emptied out as the student protesters gathered outside the building in the parking lot to debrief.

The students, some undocumented, others who call themselves “undocumented allies,” gathered in a circle and began to vent about the democratic process.

Insults were traded around left and right about Fang and his status as a Trustee, and his ability to represent the student body.
“He-who-must-not-be-named is still in there,” said one of the students in the circle. “He sure doesn’t represent us,” said another.

After the celebratory tone of the gathering started to turn to one of disappointment and resentment, Stephanie Oh stepped into the center of the circle to speak.

“It’s your responsibility,” she started, pausing to look all of the students in the eye one after the other, “ to attack the issue, and not the person. If you think of him as an enemy, stop, and turn him into an ally.”

What Oh said seemed to resonate with the crowd. They were soon back to smiling and laughing, awash in the glow of being recognized for their hardship.

Bobby Arenas, student body president at City College, jumped into the middle of the crowd with a wide smile on his face.

“We won a good victory tonight. But this isn’t over,” he said, perhaps referring to the national Dream Act.

“For now though, go home and do your homework!” Arenas shouted, and the crowd dispersed for the night shortly after.

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