David Cho is a 4th year student at UCLA, friend, son, brother, and activist in his community. Despite all that, he cannot freely board an airplane, attain a driver’s license, and work unless it is an under-the-table job. Cho has been actively involved in the fight for undocumented immigrant rights. More specifically, he is fighting for the Dream Act to be passed. As an undocumented student, he is unable to take advantage of the rights that we as American citizens take for granted. His parents had brought him to the U.S. on a student visa when he was nine years old, along with his two younger sisters, so that they could achieve the America Dream, which is vision of life that immigrants hold to esteemed value. When he first came to the U.S., he was physically and mentally abused by bullies in elementary school because he was trying to adapt to his new surrounds as a foreigner from Korea. It was out of that frustration and anger that motivated him to study really hard. He graduated high school as an honors student with a 3.9 GPA and was accepted to UCLA. Shortly after his acceptance, he learned that the visa had expired and that he and his family had to leave the country. Their sponsor had mismanaged their paperwork for their citizenship so they continued to appeal but were denied. Cho wanted to give back to his community in which he calls home. After he had learned about his undocumented status, he was ashamed and kept it a secret from his friends and faculty members. Cho’s active involvement began in his sophomore year when he decided he would no longer sit around and wait for change to happen. He decided to give his first public speech on his undocumented status and the continuous fight for the Dream Act to be passed at the Los Angeles City Hall in front of hundreds of people and media. When asked why he took that risk, he believed that “the greater risk was to remain silent. I knew that if I didn’t speak out, then who would? It is easy to remain quiet and do nothing about it but it takes courage to speak out for yourself and for millions of students across this country who are suffering from this broken immigration system.”
His speech at the Campus Progress National Conference at Los Angeles City Hall has been posted on “Youtube” with 7,000 views and has been aired on “C-Span”. After his speech, Cho was afraid because not many students were publically speaking out on the issue of their undocumented status. Law enforcement also has the jurisdiction to have him deported back to Korea, which was something that Cho was undoubtedly afraid of. The night before his speech, Cho wrote a will and a farewell letter to his friends and family knowing that he was risking deportation. Since his first coming out, he states, “I feel liberated. I feel that I am a student leader especially in the Asian American community speaking out against this injustice.” Since his first public speech, Cho has been speaking at many local and national rallies in front of large crowds of up to 25,000 people. In July 2010, Cho’s parents had driven him to Washington D.C. from California because he did not want to fly on an airplane. He did not want to risk being deported by an immigration officer at the airport. On April 21st 2011, Cho hosted an Asian American awareness event at the University of Utah to engage the Asian American community in the immigration debate. Although the Dream Act did not pass the Senate on December 8th 2010, Cho continues to speak out focusing especially on passing the California Dream Act.
Cho’s active involvement at UCLA and his passion to serve his community is an amazing testament of a human will to make a difference in the world. He is also the very first undocumented Korean American to be the drum major of the UCLA marching band. His story of being an undocumented immigrant and drum major appeared on The Wall Street Journal with a picture of him coaching his team. If that is not enough, Cho tutored high school students in his undergraduate years at an SAT prep class. He resorted to under-ground jobs which paid cash because he does not have a social security number or workers permit. He also commuted on a bus from his home in Pasadena to UCLA (and vice versa) every day because as an undocumented student, he is not able to attain his driver’s license. Commuting one way would take anywhere up to 1 hour and 45 minutes. Cho explains, “It was exhausting. It was not easy. There were times where I wanted to give up, quit school, and drop out.”
Times were not always easy for Cho and his family. During a time in college, Cho and his family came together, sat down in a circle and cried feeling utterly defeated and helpless from the challenges they were constantly faced with as immigrants. He and his sisters contemplated dropping out of school because their parents did not have the money to fund their education for college. Collectively as a family, they cried and prayed together because of their financial struggles. Cho explains that his faith in God has grown strong because the very next morning, his friend’s mom came to their house with $7,000 in cash, helping Cho and his sisters to stay in school. He explains, “I know God exists because he truly answered our prayers that night.”
Cho is a recent graduate with a double major in International Economics and Korean. He was recently accepted into Georgetown with a full scholarship but deferred his acceptance there and will be attending UCLA graduate school for their masters in public policy program. His goal is to get a PHD and become a professor and U.S. Senator to further contribute to the undocumented immigrant community.
Cho believes that undocumented students who are qualified for the Dream Act can “make a difference. We have worked hard and want a chance to give back to our community. The Dream Act would allow us to contribute greatly to society by giving us an opportunity to work, open up businesses, become professors, lawyers, doctors, etc. The U.S. has educated these 2.5 million students from their K-12 and has invested tax money in us, and after these students gain their education through schooling, they are turned away with no opportunities. We are told we cannot work for this country. We should be able to use our talents as capable, bright students and reach out to international students instead denying us rights.”
Cho is a member of IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success), an organization at UCLA that was established in October 2003 by students and faculty members to bring undocumented students under the Dream Act collectively together and supply a network of support. He has branched out his own immigrant rights organization from IDEAS called ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education) to bring unity and awareness in the undocumented Asian American community. The organization started in October 2010 and is held every Thursday at Bruin Resource Center. It is the first Asian undocumented student organization at UCLA and the second Asian undocumented student organization nationally. The main purpose of this group is to allow undocumented Asian American students to feel comfortable with their status as they share their stories and struggles with one another. The organization has twenty members with about eight to nine active student members who come out regularly every week. The others members cannot participate every week because they live far away from the UCLA campus. They have “85-40 workshops” at local high schools to educate undocumented students about financial resources such as in-state tuition information and lists of scholarships available to them.
On May 30th of a Memorial Day holiday, IDEAS hosted their 4th Annual Immigrant Youth Empowerment Conference at UCLA where David held a workshop called “How to Create your own IDEAS/ASPIRE”. The goal of the conference is to bring awareness on the broken immigration system here in the United States, and spread the word of Assembly Bill 540, a bill that was passed by Governor Gray Davis in October 2001, granting eligible immigrant students a pathway to higher education by allowing them to pay in-state tuition at higher institutions, such as California community colleges, UCs, and California State Universities. Although the AB540 bill helps immigrant students with the high pikes of tuition costs for college, it does not provide federal or state financial aid. The AB540 student is qualified if they meet the certain criteria under the bill; the eligible student must complete at least three years of high school, graduate from a California high school or receive a GED (General Education Diploma), register or be currently enrolled at community college, CSU, or a University of California, and sign an affidavit to the higher institution where they will attending. An affidavit is a signed statement stating that the student will apply for legal residency as soon as one is eligible to do so. Through the AB540 project, education is made more accessible and affordable to students. It provides financial resources and tools for students in pursuit of higher education through events such as the 4th Annual Immigrant Youth Empowerment Conference. The AB540 project hosts counselor conference meetings for undocumented high school seniors and transfer students on information pertaining to graduation. The project also hosts community workshops for undocumented students in the Los Angeles district of various high schools. According to IDEAS, the AB540 project hosted nearly 50 workshops. Along with the counselor conferences and workshops, they mentor undocumented students at high schools because of psychological stress that the students might be under because of their immigrant status in the United States. The project aims to bring a sense of camaraderie among students and provides useful resources such as scholarship information.
It is 9 o’clock in the morning at the Student Activities Center, and IDEAS members instruct a large crowd of eager people to Ackerman Grand Ballroom for registration. The volunteer members, wearing matching headsets, guide the crowd of people largely consisting of undocumented Latino high school students to the registration tables, where they receive a blue UCLA folder, a nametag, and a brochure for the long day event. By 9:30, more and more people begin to trickle in as they push through the doors into the large auditorium where the commencement begins in half an hour. Ackerman Grand Ballroom starts to become claustrophobic as high school students cluster into groups, acknowledging one another and chatting away into the morning. After registration, people begin to head towards the black plastic chairs which are neatly aligned, and wait idly until the opening ceremony which begins at 10:00. Some take a look at the brochures which reads on the front cover in red, bold, block letters, “Seize The Dream: Believe, Achieve” while others still continue to chat amongst their friends.
Sitting next to me is Eileen Vasquez, an undocumented student at James A. Garfield Senior High School in East Los Angeles. She shifts around her seat and fiddles with her black ink pen. She, as well as nearly a thousand people at the conference, chose to wake up early in the morning and spend their Memorial Day Holiday educating themselves on the Dream Act, AB 540, and the resources they need to achieve a successful and promising future. Eileen immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was two years old. She had no choice but to follow her parents who came to America for a better life. Her parents worked menial and hard-labor jobs such as a garment factory but were struggling financially. They believed that this was not the life they wanted for themselves or for Eileen – they did not want Eileen to struggle the way they had and believed it was best if she was educated in America where the education system is considerably better than in Mexico. Eileen was educated from the American school system but was too young to understand her status as an undocumented immigrant. She did not understand the longstanding history with the broken immigration laws in the United States. She did not understand it because she was only a child.
“One day you’re in Mexico and the next day you’re in America. I was too young. I didn’t have a choice. I feel American.. I am an American. I’m just waiting until the Dream Act passes. I’m waiting for that one day where I’ll be free,” she says with intent hope in her eyes.
The Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) is a legislation that would provide a pathway toward legalization for undocumented students in the United States. The bill was first proposed in the senate on August 2001, but had no progress of being passed. When the Democrats took over House in 2007, Senator Durbin re-introduced the Dream Act but the bill was filibustered by the Republicans, who are largely in opposition of immigration reform. The bill was again re-introduced on May 11, 2011. Just last year in December 2011, the bill passed House, but has continually failed every year to be passed from the Senate. The eligible Dream Act student must have immigrated to the United States before the age of sixteen, have graduated from high school in the U.S., attend college or serve in the military for at least two years, and have lived in the U.S. for five years prior to the bills reenactment. The Dream Act would allow about 2.5 million undocumented students legal residency in the U.S. and allow them to contribute to society. It would give them access to a social security number, driver’s license, and an opportunity to work legally.
It is 10:00 and the opening ceremony begins with a keynote speaker Gil Cedillo. Cedillo is wearing a tidy black suit, his dark hair neatly gelled and combed back. His smile is welcoming and his posture exudes a charming confidence. He is a leading advocate for immigrant rights in California and in the U.S. He fights every day for the passing of the Dream Act and helps the undocumented student community. He was raised in Boyle Heights and graduated from Roosevelt High School. He attained his bachelor’s degree from UCLA and was elected to the 46th California State Assembly District in 1988. Cedillo has worked for many years to allow undocumented immigrants attain a driver’s license, but has failed nine times since 1998 to get the bill passed in the California State Legislature. He has created a campaign in opposition to Proposition 187 and has proposed the latest California Dream Act, which would grant undocumented immigrant students financial aid.
Cedillo goes on stage in front of the podium and speaks amongst an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people in the crowd. He begins his speech with a tall posture, and begins by saying, “Too often we hear every day from the media that immigrants don’t have rights. And let me say to you that based on the constitution of this nation, the 14th Amendment talks about all persons being equal under the law. All persons - not gay or straight, not white men only, not male or female. It doesn’t talk about your legal status. It says all persons are protected equally under the law and that is the foundation of the U.S. Constitution – the very fundamental document that serves as a basis of all laws created in this nation says that we are created equal before the law. This nation is imbedded in arguments that people have rights regardless of immigration status. You are here as a matter of right and obligation that the state commits to you to be sure that you are educated so you have the potential to be all that you can be.”
Cedillo pauses momentarily, and says jokingly, “When I came to UCLA a hundred years ago before cell phones and color television, we couldn’t put a thousand people in here. Things are evolving and changing.” Cedillo explains that in 2025, California will lose a million people in the workforce and that the economy needs more people to take on jobs of doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, etc. He believes that California will need intelligent young people like the Dream Act students to participate in the global capital – to make the economy robust, vital, and sustainable, and be future leaders of this generation.
He recites a line from Dr. Martin Luther King, which states “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends for its justice.” He explains that every activity that one engages in helps the passing of the Dream Act. Every fundraiser, picket, protest, written letter, and vote of a politician helps the Dream Act. It is a part of the effort as a community to move society towards justice, equality, greater democracy, and moral sustainability.
He ends with a final thought. “We are going to win the California Dream Act and win dignity and respect for immigrants in California. Hold onto that dream. Education is transformative. It is the lifeblood of our democracy. In one generation you can transform your lives.”
Next on stage is Nancy Meza, a UCLA and IDEAS alumni and undocumented student activist. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico and was brought to the U.S. by her parents. She grew up in East Los Angeles and transferred to UCLA in 2008 from East Los Angeles City College on a full scholarship and became actively involved in IDEAS. At the UCLA Labor Center, she is organizing the first national internship program called Dream Summer for undocumented immigrant youth which will be launched in a couple of weeks at UCLA.
Short in stature, Meza speaks by the side of the large podium so that she can be visibly seen by the audience. She first rouses the crowd to represent where they are from. She then explains, “In East L.A., I didn’t embrace my undocumented identity until I got to UCLA. I’ve been fighting for justice in education but when I came to UCLA, I became involved with I.D.E.A.S. and truly embraced being undocumented. I used it as a powerful tool to share my story and advocate for undocumented students.”
Meza planned California’s first civil disobedience demonstration in 2008 with eight other undocumented student activists. Together, they shut down the busy streets of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue for two hours in front of the West Los Angeles Federal Building to bring national attention to the Dream Act. As a consequence to the protest and exercise of their First Amendment rights, the conservative right-wing radio talk show hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of the John and Ken Show, began a campaign to have Nancy deported. They posted her phone number on their website and sold t-shirts for $50 that said “Deport Nancy Meza.”
Kent Wong takes the stage and his energetic, jolting voice and inspiring words brings the crowd in deep admiration and solidarity. Kent Wong has been a leading activist in the immigrant community and is the director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. He is a professor at UCLA for Labor Studies and Asian American Studies, and has taught the first class on undocumented students at a university. He is a supportive mentor for IDEAS and is actively involved in labor issues in the U.S.
Kent jeers the crowd with enthusiasm as he asks “how everyone is doing this morning?!” When the crowd responds in collective voice that they are good, Ken informs everyone, “We have to be very clear that we are a nation founded and built by immigrants who have contributed to society and play an indispensable role in the economic livelihood of this country. Immigrants come to this country to escape poverty, war and famine, conditions frequently caused by the U.S. multi-national corporations. We have racist broken immigration laws. Racism in America is still alive and well!”
A loud Amen from the crowd stirs a bit of laughter among the high school students.
“It is clear that there is a tremendous injustice in this country and immigration laws are made to oppress you and your family members. They are used to keep you in the shadows, to keep you silent and used to exacerbate the exploitation of the abuse that immigrants face every single day in this country. And we have a new generation that is stepping forward and saying ‘I AM UNDOCUMENTED AND UNAFRAID!’ And when undocumented students took over Jon McCain’s office in Arizona, they challenged the federal government to fix this broken immigration system. STOP DEPORTING DREAM ACT STUDENTS!” he shouts with passionate enthusiasm as the crowd of people cheer and clap from the uplifting message.
He slams his clenched fists onto the podium, shouting “SI SE PUEDE, SI SE PUEDE, SI SE PUEDE!”
The crowd roars in unison, chanting the same words “SI SE PUEDE!”
Wong is talking about the five undocumented students who sat in for a demonstration at John McCain’s office in Tuscan, Arizona on May 17th 2010 to challenge McCain and the federal government to fix the broken immigration system and to stop the deportation of Dream Act students. They were detained and ultimately risked deportation, bringing the issue to national attention with hopes that the Dream Act could finally be passed after years of hope. These young activists came together to fight for justice and equality for individuals who have been struggling with their undocumented status in the U.S. Republican Senator John McCain, who is no longer a supporter of the Dream Act, has expressed his anti-immigration sentiment over the years, upsetting the undocumented community for his frivolous attitude and back-and-forth indecisive attitude towards the bill, which is often seen as a corrupted political scheme to win votes.
The commencement ends as people decide which workshops to attend which are listed on the brochure. IDEAS leaders are holding up white poster signs designed with colorful markers of the workshops they will be teaching. I decide to go to the workshop “How to Create Your Own IDEAS/ASPIRE”, lead by IDEAS member and Dream Act activist, David Cho. We are lead to a classroom across Ackerman Ballroom and approximately 100 people have shown up to the workshop. His workshop teaches the skills and information necessary to develop one’s own support group in high schools and community colleges. He is the voice of 2.5 million undocumented youth across this country who remains resilient in the fight for immigration reform. Until the Dream Act is passed, he will continue to be an activist in his community and fight for the justice and equality of immigrant youth.