Off the beat: Pursuing a Cal education

AmmabelleOcampo

It’s finally here — my senior year. As I waited in line for L&S advising in Evans Hall to triple-check my graduation requirements, I came into a conversation with a freshman girl from Vietnam. “Do you have a green card?“ she asked. The question took me back for a minute — a deja vu into my junior year at South Tahoe High School, when I found out that I was undocumented.

This was 1993, almost 20 years before the Dream Act or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a temporary program that offers work permits to immigrants with no criminal record — was ever introduced. Now, more than 400,000 applications nationwide are approved. In many ways, I am glad that DACA is currently in place, but even this is still a temporary fix to the country’s ongoing immigration issue. Back then, I had no choice. Despite having an acceptance letter from UC Berkeley, it was impossible for me to attend or even receive financial aid without legal residency.

My parents came to the United States as tourists in 1983 and overstayed their welcome. My younger siblings and I were “tago nang tago,” Tagalog for “in hiding.” Even my grandfather, a veteran of World War II, had his hands tied. He had citizenship to petition for his children, but that privilege may not have trickled down to me. As a child entering the United States, for 10 years I had no idea that my parents had broken any law by overstaying their visa.

I felt shocked, angry and helpless — having this problem that was beyond my influence or control. It was by luck that I had a high school counselor who knew a social worker, who knew an attorney in Sacramento who specialized in immigration law. The attorney was working in South Lake Tahoe at the time, so I went to see him about the limbo we were in. The stakes were not only possible deportation to the Philippines but also that I would have to let go of a chance to earn a college diploma from a top university.

I refused to give up. My only option was to go to immigration court to be deported by a judge in San Francisco.

“We need to ask the judge to grant you suspension of deportation. By coming out in the open,” he said, “we can convince the judge to give you permanent residency.”

“And if he does not?” I asked timidly.

“Then you will be deported to the Philippines.”

It just didn’t seem fair. I saw myself as an American in every sense of the word. I went to public school. I earned my way taking minimum-wage jobs so I could go to college. I pledged allegiance to the flag. I served my community through AmeriCorps. I set aside ties to my Filipino roots to learn to read and write in English. I pushed myself to be a model citizen to prove to my grandparents that risking their lives to come to the land of the free was worth the sacrifice.

On the verge of finishing high school at the top of my class, I knew nothing about my birth country. America was all I knew. There was a quiet desperation in my heart, an empty betrayal that eroded the spirit of what this country meant to me.

With the attorney’s help, after two years we were able to get a case to Judge Phillip Ledbetter’s immigration court. I had to track down years of paperwork to prove that I was an asset and not a nuisance to this country. The fact that I had no living relatives in the Philippines and that my parents had already passed away made for a strong case. It also helped that I was the eldest child and helped raise my younger siblings. I had held several jobs and was an asset to my community.

When we were called to court for the final decision on my case, I felt powerless facing the judge. I was not a criminal. I just wanted to stay in the country. In his hands was my destiny. I held my breath to hear his decision.

“Congratulations, Ms. Ocampo. The court hereby grants legal permanent residency.” He presided with the gavel then proceeded to congratulate me on my acceptance to Cal as well. A clerk explained the steps I would need to later obtain U.S. citizenship should I choose to attend the university.

The significance of gaining citizenship is the right to work, live in a country and participate in political life. It means that our voice matters in a global economy where immigrants do not often have this privilege. We need to recognize that a policy like DACA is only the start of immigration policy reform. Permanent residency is a luxury that not everyone has. For some, it means the ability to afford a world-class education at this university.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.