How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Students tell their personal stories in DREAM Act 'letters'

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A sign parodying the famous immigrant highway-crossing sign, outside a DREAM Act rally in Los Angeles earlier this month.

For the past several weeks, I've been following a series of posts on the social-justice blog Citizen Orange that features the personal stories of undocumented college students.

Titled "DREAM Now: Letters to Barack Obama," it is part of a social media advocacy campaign in support of the DREAM Act, with the posts disseminated via a series of other supportive blogs. However, the stories of the students, with related video clips, are interesting enough in themselves to be worthy of a compelling profile series.

Part of what I like is the focus on students from various corners of the world: Young people from Iran, India, Russia and Korea are featured along with students from Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela. While letting readers know that illegal immigration isn't just a Latino issue is undoubtedly part of the goal of the series, being reminded doesn't hurt. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of the undocumented population of the United States is not from Latin America.

The personal stories shed light on how some families wound up in the shadows, not always as one might think. For example, in this post from Mohammad Abdollahi, who arrived with his family from Iran when he was three years old:

Undocumented immigrants are often told, "get in line!" without knowing that many of us were at one point in this infamous line.  My family was "in line" until an immigration attorney miscalculated the processing fee for an H1-B visa by $20 dollars and our application was rejected.  The second attorney my family hired to fix the application spent his time bickering with the old attorney instead of informing my parents that they only had 60 days to appeal our rejected application.  The deadline came and went and we became undocumented.

Some of the students are surprisingly gutsy. This letter, from UCLA student David Cho, made me do a double take:
I will be a senior studying International Economics and Korean at UCLA this upcoming Fall. While most of my friends will enter the workplace after graduation, I will not be able to even put my name down on a job application because of my status. I'm a hardworking student with a 3.6 GPA and I am the first Korean and actually the first undocumented student to ever become the conductor, the drum major of the UCLA Marching Band in UCLA history.

Some of the students featured in the series have won reprieves from deportation, among them Indian-born teenager Yves Gomes, whose story appeared earlier this month in the Washington Post. Another, Russian-born Ivan Nikolov (represented on the site by his fiancee) was recently released from detention, but still has a pending deportation order.

I was reminded of the Citizen Orange series this afternoon while reading a piece in AsianWeek which estimated that the DREAM Act could affect approximately a million Asian and Pacific Islander students. According to the Pew report, about 11 percent of the nation's undocumented population is from Asia.

The DREAM Act letters, the first of which was posted July 19, were timed to coincide with a civil disobedience campaign by students and other supporters last month that included a caravan to Washington, D.C. and a hunger strike in Los Angeles. The proposed legislation, also known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, would provide a path to legal status for young people brought here under the age of 16 who either attend college or join the military.

The military aspect has generated concern from some members of immigrant communities, who fear that young people might enlist for fear of deportation.

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