South L.A. Dreamers Hopeful, Cautious

15 Aug South L.A. Dreamers Hopeful, Cautious

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By Carla María Guerrero

Always fearful of being separated from his family, Carlos Leon cautiously celebrates President Obama’s “deferred action” announcement that grants administrative relief from deportation to undocumented immigrants who came as children.

As a freshman at Fremont High School in the late 1990s, Carlos Leon was hoping for a miracle. An undocumented immigrant who had come from Mexico when he was 9, Leon dreamed of attending college. Not someone to give up, he devised a plan: excel at school and extracurricular activities, and maybe he’d have a chance at higher education.

With a 4.0 GPA he passed every AP exam, became school president and started taking classes at the local community college. He applied to and was accepted at 12 schools, including New York University and most of the UCs. But with senior year came a harsh reality: Attending a four-year college was not possible. Leon could not afford the tuition.

More than a decade later, Leon cautiously celebrates President Barack Obama’s “deferred action”—an administrative relief program announced June 15 that grants temporary protection from deportation for young undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria (see sidebar for eligibility requirements).

An estimated 100,000 to 125,000 undocumented youth in Los Angeles and 1.4 million nationwide could benefit from deferred action, says Carlos Amador, project coordinator for the Dream Resource Center at the UCLA Labor Center.

The program’s announcement is a victory that comes on the heels of extensive organizing across the U.S. by “dreamers”—young people who have been pushing for a federal law to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrant youth.

Life in Limbo
After high school, Leon attended community college paying his way by working two to three jobs each semester.

“I would do a newspaper route, three to four hours driving in the sun dropping off papers at stores,” Leon said. “At night I would work at a restaurant as a server. In between I tried to do as many hours of school as I could.”

It took him five years before he was able to transfer to Cal State Long Beach. There Leon started a support group for other undocumented students.

During that time he met his future wife and in 2008, his final year in college, his father died. Leon remembers feeling in constant limbo. Living in fear of deportation, he detached emotionally from his family and friends. It wasn’t until he finished his final college exam that he allowed himself to mourn his father’s death. “After I finished, I just drove and cried,” Leon recalled.

Today, he views Obama’s deferred action program with cautious hope.

“[Just] thinking about it gives me goose bumps because I’ve been operating on a day-to-day level—always fearing that at any moment I can be deported, and lose my wife and my 2-year-old daughter.”

Believing in Progress
Zyshia Williams is a junior at UCLA majoring in international development. Originally from Belize, she came to the United States at age 10 to reunite with her single mom, whom she hadn’t lived with since she was a toddler.

At first Williams came for a visit, but decided to stay after realizing that the educational opportunities in the U.S. were greater than in her country. She moved to South Los Angeles, living two blocks from USC. In high school, she excelled in every class to boost her chances of getting admitted to the best colleges.

She never let her undocumented status keep her down. “I knew the history of America: It is land of immigrants. Everyone’s an immigrant, even someone like [Andrew] Carnegie,” Williams said. “Being an immigrant never stopped them from being successful. And I believed that until the 11th grade.”

It was then that she realized being undocumented would limit her dreams of attending college. “I felt so stupid, so stupid. I felt like I did this hard work for nothing. I cried and was very depressed,” Williams said.

But she refused to give up. “With things like the California Dream Act passing, I realized that even though there’s discrimination in this country, there’s also change and progress in America’s history. I know things will change,” she said. Williams lobbied in Sacramento for the California Dream Act, which was passed in 2011 and allows undocumented college students to receive public financial aid.

Like Leon, Williams has had to work hard to pay for college. She juggles jobs and classes and is frequently applying for scholarships.

“[Deferred action] makes me hopeful but I’m still waiting for the long-term change,” she said. “I’m glad because it will help me find a job after college without fear. I know it won’t grant me citizenship but it’s a step forward.”

Carla María Guerrero is a communications assistant at Community Coalition.

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