LOS ANGELES — At the sight of two customers, Andres walks over to the register to take their food order.
It’s training day, which means that Andres will get no lunch break during his nine-hour shift. He’s manning the restaurant all by himself today and, on top of his regular duties, he has to train the new girl.
This is not the type of job most college graduates with degrees in Sociology and Chicano and Latino Studies dream of, but for Andres this is the best he can do.
Instead of looking for jobs where he can use his degrees, he must deal with customer indifference, no lunch breaks and little or no chance at finding a better job.
Growing up in Compton, Calif., Andres had the same hopes and dreams as any American kid. But that all changed when he tried to get a driver’s license.
“I remember being 15 years old and my dad telling me I wouldn’t be able to get my driver’s license because I was undocumented,” Andres says, of his immigration status. “At the time I didn’t know the gravity of the situation until one day I walk into my house after school and find my mom sobbing because my dad had been deported.”
In a country where laws like Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 gives police officers the authority to ask for proof of legal U.S. residency, Andres is just one of the many young college graduates with a degree they can’t use due to their immigration status.
But is there any hope for these students at a time when even U.S.-born students can’t find jobs?
“In a bad economy it becomes a difficult argument because people are struggling,” says Roberto Gonzales, assistant professor at the school of social work at the University of Washington. “There will be people that make arguments that their parents broke the laws. But these students are put through this socializing mechanism that is school, which encourages them to be all you can be.”
The current version of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), which is sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), would give students like Andres a path to citizenship.
Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), doesn’t think that the DREAM Act is a good idea.
“Nobody is saying they’re bad people,” Mehlman says, regarding undocumented college graduates. “But if you look at the employment prospects for [U.S.-born] kids out of college, the last thing they need is competition.”
Gonzales, author of the report “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students,” says that competition is just one of the many things these students have learned in the U.S.
Like other students in his situation, Andres has been faced with this conundrum because of a decision made for him when he was just a toddler.
There isn’t a clear number as to how many undocumented college students graduate every year, but Claudine Karasik, an attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), says that these students will not be taking jobs from U.S.-born college graduates.
“You have an entire population that wants to contribute to our economy,” Karasik says. “They’re using education as a vehicle to give back to society. They are a return of our investment.”
Andres was only three years old when his parents left their native Mexico and decided to make this country their home. A couple of years after his two younger sisters were born in the U.S., his parent’s work permit expired but they decided to stay.
“The bottom line is that their parents broke the law,” Mehlman says in reference to the fact that these students didn’t choose to come to the U.S. on their own. “There is no reason to make an exception here.”
His father eventually crossed the border again and through many years of waiting, managed to fix his status in the country. Despite having two U.S.-born sisters and a father with legal status in the country, both Andres and his mother are still unable to fix their immigration status.
Although Andres was accepted to the University of California-Santa Barbara, he opted for community college because he didn’t qualify for federal student aid. Community college was manageable because of California ‘s Assembly Bill 540, that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities in California. He would have paid in-state tuition at UCSB, but a community college was just more affordable for Andres.
Not Giving Up
Issac quickly walks into a packed hall on the UCLA campus, where all eyes are on U.S. short track speedskating team member and Olympic bronze medal winner Simon Cho. He scans the room for an empty chair and finally settles for an empty spot by one of the walls.
He listens intently as the Korean-born athlete tells the star-struck audience about the time he illegally crossed into the U.S. via the Canadian border when he was only four years old.
When the Q&A begins, Issac raises his hand and asks if Cho gets any negative reaction from people when he confesses that he was once an undocumented immigrant in the U.S.
“They say ‘Go back to Korea !'” Cho responds. “I feel that people that give me negative responses are very ignorant.”
Isaac’s own personal story reflects Cho’s. Although Isaac wasn’t as young as Cho when he came to this country from Mexico, at 14 years old he was still under his parent’s command.
He struggled to overcome the language barrier and deal with his expired visa, but Isaac nevertheless continued his quest for higher education after high school upon seeing how his parents went from quasi white-collar jobs in Mexico to menial jobs in the U.S.
Like Andres, Isaac took advantage of the AB 540 bill and enrolled in community college. He eventually transferred to a four-year university where he received a B.S. in Human Services.
Holding a photograph of his deported brother, Isaac remembers proudly walking with his cap and gown wondering what the future would hold for a college graduate without a permit to legally work in the country.
For a whole year after receiving his college degree, he went from books and all-nighters, to scrubbing toilets with his mother.
“I was very frustrated,” Isaac remembers. “A good number of them knew about our [immigration] status and they didn’t care.”
The frustration didn’t get the best of Isaac. He started to save up for grad school and was finally accepted in the UCLA School of Public Affairs as a Master of Social Work candidate.
Isaac is sure that if the DREAM Act or some sort of immigration reform happens, this country will benefit greatly.
A recent study by the Center for American Progress titled “Rising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform” support his beliefs.
According to the study, a comprehensive immigration reform “would yield at least $1.5 trillion in cumulative U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years.” This study was based on the results from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which raised wages and generated additional tax revenue.
Tomás R. Jiménez, an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, wrote last month in a L.A Times opinion piece that 1986 was the last time that the U.S. had a major immigration overhaul.
Hope For The Future
At the end of the dark immigration tunnel, you have college graduate Cyndi Bendezu. The UCLA graduate left Lima, Peru with her parents when she was only four years old and throughout her formative years, Benduzu wasn’t aware that she was an undocumented immigrant.
Like many other undocumented students, it wasn’t until she tried to apply for federal student aid that her dreams to go to college suddenly seemed to come to a halt. “I was so disappointed,” Benduzu says. “I graduated on top of my class but didn’t have enough money saved to go to college.”
Although money was a huge barrier for Benduzu, this factor didn’t entirely defer her dreams of a higher education. As soon as she found out that a four-year university was out of her affordability, she opted for community college thanks to the AB 540 bill, before eventually transferring to UCLA as a political science major.
“I got politicized and started lobbying for the DREAM Act,” Benduzu says. “I started to do presentations for colleges and high schools to educate our counselors who didn’t know about undocumented students and how they could go to college.”
When she wasn’t doing presentations and staying up late writing papers, she was babysitting and transcribing notes for Ph. D. students in order to supplement her income. After receiving a couple of scholarships that didn’t require a Social Security number to apply, she managed to graduate from UCLA in 2007.
Luckily for Benduzu, the immigration system worked in her favor. After living in the shadows for nearly ten years, she was able to legalize her immigration status through her family.
She received her green card this past January and was finally able to work legally in the country. She got a position as a project coordinator for the UCLA Downtown Labor Center where she continues to do educational outreach in her local community.
Benduzu says that it has been a strange process to realize that she is now legal in the U.S. For so many years, she had to watch her every step in fear of a possible deportation. But she still worries about the other students who haven’t had the opportunity to fix their immigration status.
All of these students became politically active and participated in the various rallies after the passage of SB 1070. Both Andres and Isaac know that deportation is just around the corner and that they expose themselves by being so outspoken about their status.
“I know a doctoral student whose mother got deported because of her [student] activism,” Gonzales says. “But the DREAM Act got a lot of endorsement in 2009 because of the organization of students. That wouldn’t be happening if it was just advocates.”
Karasik says that these students don’t have many other options but to be outspoken about their immigration dilemmas.
“They’re willing to risk everything they know to effect social change,” Karasik says. “Their willingness to speak out says much about their courage.”
Back at the restaurant, Andres looks at the customers coming and going. All of them young, Caucasian and, once they have their food, polite.
He’s positive that they have no idea what students like him have to go through in order to obtain a college degree. But despite all of the obstacles he’s had to endure, Andres is proud of his accomplishments.
“It’s a sheet of paper that says I have two majors,” Andres says about his college degree, which he gave to his parents. “But it also represents the conquering of a struggle.”