Like many other immigrants, ASUC Senator-elect Ju Hong came to the United States in search of a better life.
Hong, 21, lived in South Korea until he was 11 years old. Financial difficulties became a pressing issue when his family’s dream of a owning a small restaurant business drove them into debt. Hong still clearly remembers a night when two debt collectors came to his home, broke the door, grabbed a chair and smashed the windows.
“We couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Hong said. “One day my mom approached me and said we’re going to America. At first I didn’t want to go, but as a child, what else could I do? I was forced to go, but my mom’s true intention was to seek a better life for me and my sister.”
During his senior year of high school, Hong was filling out college applications when he realized that he didn’t know his social security number. When he asked his mother, he discovered that his family had come to the country on tourist visas. The visas had since then expired.
After finding out his immigration status, Hong, who had been an outgoing and approachable high school student, became “very distant from (his) friends and the community.”
“I felt very isolated — I was very embarrassed of who I was,” Hong said. “I remember avoiding questions like, ‘How come you don’t get a driver’s license? How come you don’t get a job, an internship?’”
However, the signing of AB 130 — part one of the California DREAM Act — on Monday may be the first step in equalizing opportunities for students like Hong.
The bill, authored by Assemblymember Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and allows UC, CSU and California Community Colleges to award privately funded scholarships to undocumented students.
“The DREAM Act will allow me to work, stay here and contribute to society, and that’s all I wanted to do,” Hong said. “It’s great news for dreamers and immigrant communities.”
Cedillo commented on the significance of the event at the bill’s signing, saying that “it has been a long journey to realize this moment and this day.”
“I know that I stand here today as the result of a great public education,” Cedillo said at a press conference. “Public education is the lifeblood of our democracy. Public education in this great state and this great nation is the equalizer of our society.”
Brown said at the bill’s signing that “this is one piece of a very important mosaic, which is a California that works for everyone.”
“Anything that’s going to advance the cause of our people — whatever their background, their color, their religion, their political philosophy — all of that is secondary to the fact that we’re Californians together,” Brown said at the press conference. “There’s a dream, and that dream is fulfilled by the human imagination nurtured in schools, but also nurtured in neighborhoods.”
On the other hand, opponents of the act believe that “now is a bad time to be shifting funds away from our own education,” said John Freeman, a representative for Assemblymember Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, who could not be reached for comment.
“Why would you offer to pay for somebody who could not even legally obtain a job when there are tons and tons of citizens in our own state who cannot afford their education?” Freeman said.
Nevertheless, supporters of the act are still not satisfied. Hong said that while the passage of AB 130 is a step forward, “We have to push, mobilize and organize” in order to get the second part of the act, AB 131, passed as well.
AB 131, which would allow undocumented students to apply for and receive state financial aid, such as Cal Grants, is still pending in the state Senate.
“This would be the huge gain that really made a big difference,” said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri. “Financial aid is the predominant obstacle these students face and the single factor that most prevents extremely talented individuals from achieving their potential at UC Berkeley.”
Other individuals in the UC Berkeley community have been actively voicing their opinions about the DREAM Act. Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau “has been a really strong and vigorous advocate and champion for this legislation.”
“The chancellor said publicly that AB 131 is a critical component in allowing students to attend (UC) Berkeley because that would broaden the aid for so-called AB 540 students,” Mogulof said.
AB 540, passed in 2001, grants in-state tuition for higher education, regardless of citizenship or residency, to students who graduate from a California high school, among other requirements. According to UC estimates, “approximately 500 to 650 students who qualify for the AB 540 nonresident tuition exemption are potentially undocumented,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein in an email.
As for AB 131, the UC estimates that approximately 800 undergraduate students who qualify for AB 540 nonresident tuition exemption would meet the requirements for a Cal Grant. In addition, it is estimated that another 400 to 500 students would qualify for $3.7 million to $4.6 million in institutional aid, Klein added in the email.
Until AB 131 is passed, supporters of the DREAM Act said they will continue working to build awareness and momentum.
“It’s a human rights issue,” Hong said.