UCLA undocumented student on DREAM Act rollercoaster

UCLA undocumented student
UCLA undocumented student "Sylvia" meets with academic advisor Ernesto Guerrero. Both watched closely this week's Capitol Hill debate of the DREAM Act.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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One college student at UCLA had a hard time handling this week’s dramatic back-and-forth over the DREAM Act vote on Capitol Hill. The US House of Representatives approved the measure but the Senate postponed a vote. Approval would have meant legalization for her and many other undocumented young people across the country.

Her real name is not Sylvia. But that’s what she’ll use to hide her identity. Her parents sneaked her and a younger brother across the U.S.-Mexico border when they were toddlers. From an early age, she says, she felt as if she was anointed to succeed in life.

"My parents didn’t have to worry about me, it was just expected for me to get good grades. It was not as severe with my other little brothers but like for me as for being the only girl, and the first one, I had to set that example, just finish high school, get good grades, graduate with honors, that’s it," she said.

Sylvia did, and that opened the door to UCLA and set her apart in her family and neighborhood. "I’m like the only one in the family who has not gotten pregnant, who has not dropped out of school, who has not joined a gang, who has not left the house, any of that stuff. I’m like the one standing. So it makes it more of a pressure that I have to do good," she said.

On this day the petite 19 year-old, has her hair in a pony-tail and wears a translucent, multicolored scarf. It’s finals week of her second year at UCLA. It’s been tough. She catches a bus near her family’s home in Compton at five in the morning. She goes to class, studies a bit and takes the bus back to Compton to work at a restaurant near her house.

"And then once I would get out of work I still would have to do my responsibilities which was cleaning the house, because I’m the only girl so we have this thing, mentality that my brothers couldn’t do that. So I would have to be the one, I still had to clean, I still had to do this, I still had to, and later I would have to do homework. But then by that time, it would be like 2-3 in the morning and I would be really, really tired," she said.

With no time to chat with girlfriends, go out, or watch her favorite TV show, Dancing with the Stars. Earlier this year, Sylvia’s father was laid off from his construction job so she had to take a second job near campus. She also found out that aunts, uncles, and family friends had loaned the family money to pay the four-thousand dollar bill for each quarter at UCLA. Because she’s undocumented, she doesn’t qualify for the financial aid that eases many students’ financial burdens.

Ernesto Guerrero, Sylvia’s academic counselor at UCLA, says many of the 300 or so undocumented students on campus navigate similar hardships. She and other undocumented students ask him sometimes why they should work so hard while their future in this country is in limbo. "That’s where I don’t have an answer for them. That’s not within my realm, I can’t fix that, and that’s probably the most frustrating part of working with these students, I feel helpless," Guerrero said.

He says granting legal residency to promising students like Sylvia would be fiscally prudent for the economy - and would confirm that merit and diligence have their rewards.

In response to DREAM Act critics, Sylvia says she wants to contribute to society as an American. Her uncle is one of those skeptics. His negativity hurts, she says, and this is what she tells him. "Education is really important, you have to do something. Just because I don’t have a status doesn’t mean that I can’t be a better person. I’m not going to stop there. I’m the kind of person that, I don’t let anything get in my way. If I want something I’m going to get it no matter what."

She tells her mother not to count on the Dream Act making it off of Capitol Hill. If it does, she says, it’ll mean she can quit one job and focus more time on her international development studies major.

She could also indulge a little more in one of her dreams. On breaks she wanders to the north side of campus and peeks through a dance classroom with big windows and mirrors inside. "I love to dance. Dancing is like, my passion and I would have loved to major in it at UCLA. But again, I had to put my priorities in order just for the fact that my parents weren’t about to pay so much money for me just to become a professional dancer," Sylvia said.

For now, she keeps her dreams within reach: to do well on finals, and to save enough money to return to school next quarter.