Chabot College students urge Congress Wednesday in Hayward to pass the immigration bill known as the DREAM Act (PHOTO Steven Tavares/EBC) 

By Steven Tavares

Karina Lara does not remember when she first arrived in the United States. She was only five months old, she says when her parents crossed the border from Mexico. Lara is one of an estimated 550,000 undocumented students in the California alone. The 20-year-old Chabot College student and others Wednesday afternoon called on Congress to pass the controversial DREAM Act, which allows a path to citizenship for undocumented students over the age of 16 and with a high school diploma.

The legislation, languishing within a lame-duck session of the House, has been called “backdoor amnesty” by some Republicans and threatens to breed disenchantment among Latinos towards both parties if not enacted. Republicans leaders have vowed to block all legislation until the Bush tax cuts are extended, but congressional Democrats are also unsure the act will even come up for a vote before the GOP takeover the majority in January.

The bill, known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children and lived in this country for five consecutive years a chance to become citizens. Provisions of the act also include earning a high school diploma or equivalent, maintaining a clean criminal record and attending college or the military for a minimum of two years.

It was not their decision to come to this country, but now they want a better opportunity–a level playing field. -Hayward Councilman Francisco Zermeno

Much of the passion from students like Lara is a desire to give back to the only country they have ever known. “I should have the same opportunity as anyone else,” she said. “I am an American.”

Lara says she is “tormented” by the specter of being pulled over by law enforcement and possibly deported to a country completely foreign to her. “I’m going to school because I believe I can do something in my life,” she told students Wednesday during a rally at Chabot College. “We’re not out there doing drugs or anything. We want to be a benefit for this country,” she added. “I want to be able to pay my taxes.”

Hayward Councilman
 Francisco Zermeno

The argument undocumented students with a yearning to contribute to society are a benefit, not a excuse to broaden immigration law as some conservatives contend, was also voiced by Hayward City Councilman Francisco Zermeno. “They are not going to hurt anyone,” said Zermeno, who is also a Spanish language instructor at Chabot College. “This is not going to help a gang member who is making trouble. It was not their decision to come to this country, but now they want a better opportunity–a level playing field.”

Zermeno calls the potential brain drain of foreign-born students a “lost generation” along with other groups that simply cannot afford higher education. “We have a segment of the population that can’t afford to go to college,” he said. “This is something we cannot allow.”

While the University of California and CSU systems have repeatedly raised tuition over the past decade, the cost of community colleges remain relatively affordable. The cost-per-unit at Chabot College, for example, is $26 for in-state students, but rises significantly for international students. America Salazar, who works at the college’s counseling department says its quite common to run across prospective students who are undocumented. “They’re scared,” she said when it comes to their inability to produce a social security number. Salazar says she is the opposite of people like Lara. She was born in the U.S., but grew up in Mexico. “I’m proud of them,” she says. “Sometimes, I wish I was like them.”