ELEVENTH STREET — About a year ago, when Andrea Jimenez’ father got pulled over and ticketed, her family feared the worst. If the ticket fees were not enough of a nightmare, they worried their sole breadwinner faced probation at his court appearance that would lead to his deportation.
Jimenez — an undocumented immigrant brought over from Mexico at age 3 who lives in Santa Monica — accompanied her father to the courthouse to serve as his translator. Taking a chance, she sought out an attorney to take on her father’s case pro bono.
One woman heard her story and expressed interest but she was too busy. After several accidental run-ins that day the attorney finally agreed to help, got five tickets dismissed and offered Jimenez, a political science major at Santa Monica College, her contact information for an internship opportunity at her law firm.
While Jimenez’ story has a happy ending, undocumented immigrants working and living in the city by the bay still face several day-to-day challenges as the nation looks to the U.S. House of Representatives for its verdict on a bi-partisan immigration reform bill approved by the Senate.
Though the exact number of undocumented people in Santa Monica is indiscernible, a report from the White House released last month estimates about 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S.
Thus far legislation has supported undocumented students the most with such initiatives as last year’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program which ensures protection from deportation and a work permit renewable for two years to those who meet criteria.
Other notable efforts include the passage of AB 540 in California which allows undocumented students who meet requirements to pay in-state tuition fees at any UC, CSU, or California community college; and the California Dream Act (AB 130 and 131) that allows AB 540 students to apply to privately funded scholarships given out by a California public college/university and to apply for Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver, Institutional Aid, and Cal Grants.
Thanks to her deferred action status, Jimenez is now able to work at the Nasatir, Hirsch, Podberesky & Khero criminal law firm continuing on from her internship in hopes of one day getting a law degree. While Jimenez dreams of working as an immigration lawyer so she can lend a hand to her community, recent news from a fellow Dreamer create an obstacle in her path. (Dreamer is a term used to refer to students who are in the country illegally.)
Sergio Garcia, an undocumented immigrant that came to live in the U.S. at age 17, was granted a license to practice law by the State Bar of California in 2009. He said he was one of the first to be asked about his legal status for investigative purposes and explained that his father had applied to adjust his status 19 years ago but has yet to get a response. Upon further investigation, 15 days after he got it, his license was revoked. The rationale: he was undocumented.
Garcia seeks to win back his license through the California Supreme Court, arguing there is nothing in the books that would prohibit him from practicing law as an independent contractor or sole proprietor. He said he finds the message of his case to be distressing for young Dreamers like Jimenez who wish to enter the legal profession. The court heard oral arguments Wednesday.
Jorge Mario-Cabrera, spokesperson for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles that is advocating Garcia’s case, explained that often undocumented students interested in the legal and medical professions stop pursuing their dream once they get their graduate school degrees in fear of not qualifying to apply for a license with their status in mind. Yet in a White House press release from last month, it is estimated that providing earned citizenship for undocumented immigrant workers (not just professionals) would in over 10 years boost U.S. GDP by $1.4 trillion.
Regardless of his outcome, Garcia still encourages undocumented students to devote themselves to their education, especially given the changing nature of immigration laws.
“You will always find a way to make use of your education,” Garcia said.
For Jesus Vasquez-Cipriano, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 2 and is waiting to hear about his deferred action status, his education at SMC has been a blessing. Last summer he was able to intern at the Washington D.C. office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund through the prestigious Dale Ride Internship that is partly funded by the SMC Foundation.
Though Vasquez-Cipriano lives in Los Angeles, he has grown to consider Santa Monica his home where he is actively involved on campus and gives time to the Pico Youth & Family Center.
The city by the bay has demonstrated a dedication to the undocumented student community through its funding and housing of such groups as the Virginia Park Teen Center, the Latino Center at SMC and workshop events sponsored by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“Even though I haven’t been able to legalize my status, the city has helped me legitimize my presence,” Vasquez-Cipriano said.
Seth Ronquillo, a Filipino undocumented student and co-chair of the immigration advocacy group Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success at UCLA, said his support network of undocumented peers has been able to help him feel comfortable in his own skin. Yet he still realizes that for many students, even on a welcoming campus like UCLA, willingness to speak about their legal identity to others can still be a burden.
“Everyone wants to be a normal student, and for some disclosing your status means you’re not normal anymore,” Ronquillo said.
Ronquillo, Vasquez-Cipriano and Jimenez all shared that they were raised with fear of their own status and most did not open up until high school or college. Vasquez-Cipriano added that beyond the language barrier, undocumented parents feel uneasy with taking part in their children’s education through PTAs and parent-teacher conferences for fear of drawing too much attention.
While Ronquillo, like Jimenez, is relieved to have a deferred action status, he recognizes that the stakes for undocumented immigrants who are not students are still high. Even though he is protected from deportation, Ronquillo said his family is still at risk and that when one person gets deported, an entire community is affected.
“Being undocumented is not as simple as crossing border A to reach destination B,” Ronquillo said.
Day laborers looking to get picked up for various construction projects on 11th Street and Colorado Avenue have no protection from deportation or even from discrimination.
A 30-year-old Guatemalan undocumented immigrant who came over six years ago, who for anonymity purposes will be called Carlos, said in Spanish that often when contracted employees don’t want to finish a strenuous project like digging a trench, day laborers are hired for the job and paid significantly less.
Carlos, who commutes to Santa Monica from Los Angeles every morning, said that while he has been able to secure jobs three days a week, on average, there is no set daily guarantee for his fellow workers.
A 49-year-old Mexican undocumented immigrant who crossed over 10 years ago and will be called Javier, said in Spanish that often day laborers complete a task and are promised payment the next day, but the employers never show.
For Carlos all the on-going discussions in D.C. about immigration reform are not enough.
“It’s all just been politics. We’ve been waiting but we haven’t seen any real action,” Carlos said.
While Vasquez-Cipriano recognizes that such day laborers contribute to the greater community by performing necessary yet undesirable tasks that support larger infrastructures, he hopes that someday soon they would have options for how they would like to pitch in to the economy rather than feel forced to dig a ditch as their only means of survival.
“We often forget that our success is collective,” Vasquez-Cipriano said.