UC Berkeley students joined the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) last week to launch a national campaign urging President-elect Barack Obama to enact the federal Dream Act, which would legalize federal financial aid and open a path of citizenship for undocumented immigrant college students across the nation, who are otherwise entrapped in complicated paperwork.
Held at the MLK Student Union on campus, the Nov. 13 event—which was organized by BAMN and co-sponsored by Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education, the Latino Business Students Association, the gender and women’s studies and Spanish and Portuguese studies departments at the university and the Chancellor’s Student Opportunity Fund—started with a group of undocumented students from around the Bay Area testifying about their struggles in the absence of federal financial aid.
Calls to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s office for comment were not returned, but a campus spokesperson confirmed that the chancellor supports the Dream Act. Birgeneau wrote an op-ed piece in support of the act for the UC Berkeley student newspaper, The Daily Californian, on Nov. 5.
In California, undocumented students have the right to attend a public university but are not allowed to apply for financial aid, something Thursday’s participants said they would aggressively push for once the new president is sworn in.
BAMN activists also called upon UC Berkeley to become a sanctuary campus and welcome African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other minority and immigrant communities.
“We want to make the era of change and hope real,” said BAMN organizer Yuvette Felarca, who also teaches at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley. “When we see the nation elect the first black president and yet we see that the percentage of blacks and Latinos on campuses like UC Berkeley and UCLA is so low, we need to make a change.”
Shanta Driver, national chairperson for BAMN, asked students to seize this important moment in history to start a new kind of civil rights movement which would oppose racism and bring equal opportunities to all.
“Over the last few weeks we have seen a real change in America and it has presented us with an opportunity to leave our mark on our nation,” she said to applause from the audience. “If it’s possible for America, with such a strong and deep history of racism to do this, then anything is possible. We need to resolve deep social problems and engage in a real debate and discussion on racism.”
She said that Obama should enact the Dream Act within his first 100 days in office.
“If the people who worked for Obama’s victory decide after inauguration day that their work is over, it won’t happen,” Driver said. “We have to continue to be leaders of the movement that put him in power.”
Driver added that if the Dream Act failed under Obama, then generations of young people would ask, “If a black president couldn’t do it, then who can?”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 1301, which incorporates the California Dream Act, on Sept. 30, citing a staggering state economy. Thousands of students who had mobilized in support of the bill were disappointed by his decision.
“The governor said that although he shared the authors’ goal of making affordable education available to all California students, given the precarious fiscal condition the state is facing right now, it would not be prudent to place additional demands on our limited financial aid resources as specified in this bill,” said Francisco Castillo, a spokesperson for Schwarzenegger.
Castillo added that the governor supported a local bill which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
Gabriella, a UC Berkeley undocumented student from El Salvador who has been in the U.S. since October 2005, said that even with in-state tuition, it is difficult to make ends meet
“The reason my dad brought me here is because he wanted me to have a better life,” she said. “But my transition to UC Berkeley has been very different than that of the other students. My dad earns less than $10,000 a year. I couldn’t get enough scholarship money to live on campus so I am living with my best friend’s sister in Davis. I have to commute three to four hours every day.”
Gabriella—who wants to go to law school—said that when she started out as a sophomore at her high school in California, she didn’t speak English and never imagined going to a community college, let alone UC Berkeley.
“Right now I can’t get a job because I don’t have a Social Security number and residence,” she said. “Sometimes I have to skip meals in order to pay for the shuttle. I had to sacrifice many things to be at UC Berkeley. Usually people have gym, clubs or homework sessions after class, but I can’t go to any of those. My future is pretty uncertain and if the situation doesn’t change I might have to drop out. I have hope that the Dream Act might get passed one day.”
Zaira, another undocumented student at the university, echoed her thoughts.
“It’s hard to describe the life of an undocumented student on campus,” she said. “We act the same as the other students but our efforts are not reciprocated by the education system. All undocumented students are equal and deserve the same rights. There’s no reason why we should get the leftovers of education. I want to ask those opposing the Dream Act to give me one reason why it shouldn’t be made a reality.”