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Tucked away in the student center at University of California Berkeley, the Undocumented Student Program is designed to be a national model. It makes college possible for students without legal status. Meng So runs the program. He’s totally passionate about the work, and insists students here couldn’t wait for national immigration reform. “So we said, as the number one public institution in America, we’re gonna take a lead, and we’re gonna act when others won’t,” said So.
That means: low cost housing, financial aid, and free legal services, on top of the in-state tuition and grants that California offers many undocumented students, who attended three years of high school.
All to support students like sophomore Carlos Hernandez Martinez.“I’m actually I guess what you would call a dreamer,” said Hernandez Martinez. “My parents brought me to this country when I was 4 years old. I grew up here my whole life in Oakland… Sometimes I feel more from here than from Mexico. My parents say that too, ‘You were basically born here. You’ve done everything here.’”
Without the support at Berkeley, Hernandez Martinez couldn’t afford school. But if he wasn’t in school, his options were limited — he couldn’t legally work, or drive. Berkeley’s program doesn’t fix this. But last summer, the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Hernandez Martinez applied for. For those who are eligible, it prevents deportation and gives young adults a two year work permit.
On a Tuesday night at the East Bay Community Law Center, college student Choon Dee was going through his Deferred Action application with some volunteer law students. A lot of undocumented students from Cal get referred here. The application has a lot of very specific questions, and some have Dee stumped. For example, Dee needs to show proof that he was physically in the U.S. on the day that the Deferred Action program was announced. He needs some kind of receipt or cell phone record showing activity on that day.
“A lot of these people have never met with a lawyer before,” said Linda Tam, a lawyer at the center. “There are about 20 different young adults here tonight applying for status. Some have their parents with them. I think it’s really scary for them. There’s a lot at stake. And the possibility of being deported to a country that you never knew really because you came over at such a young age…Some of my clients — their parents are in deportation proceedings.”
Linda Sanchez is an undocumented student at Berkeley who is getting ready to graduate. “A lot of peers who I have spoken to feel very conflicted about (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program),” she said.
For her, getting approved for Deferred Action would mean being able to find a job after she finishes school. But she still has mixed feelings about the program. She says her friends say the experience is like a “Mexican Christmas.” Children receive all the gifts and the parents don’t receive anything in return.
“They feel a sense of guilt more than anything. Because they feel like ‘I am benefiting from something and my parents are not. And I am here because of my parents.'”
As for Carlos Hernandez Martinez, his parents still don’t have any legal status. But he found out in December that he was approved for Deferred Action. He says he sometimes asks his parents about their personal ambitions – their dream jobs or what they would want to study. But he knows they won’t ever have the opportunity to pursue those things.
“That’s the part that sort of kills me. That’s what also motivates me as well,” Hernandez Martinez said.
As lawmakers debate immigration reform, many young adults who call themselves “Dreamers” hope changes go beyond reforms that help them, and that whatever passes might benefit their parents too.