David Cho as a panelist in “Undocumented and Unafraid” Symposium held at UCLA. Photo courtesy of Imelda S. Plascencia

Here are the basics: California Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540) allows undocumented students, as well as documented ones, to pay in-state tuition but prohibits them from applying for state financial aid; the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is a proposed article of federal legislation that gives a select group of undocumented individuals who have lived in the U.S. since the age of 15 a pathway to citizenship. Although the DREAM Act has not been passed yet, AB 540 has alleviated some of the pangs of college for undocumented students since 2001. Here at UCLA, David Cho is one of those undocumented students.

David came to the U.S. when he was 9 years old. Living in Southern California, there was only one college he wanted to go to. UCLA was David’s first choice. Once he got in, David was excited, “UCLA had everything I wanted-academics, athletics, band, people, environment, diversity, and it was close to home.”

Due to unfortunate circumstances, David became undocumented during his freshman year. Despite this hardship, he stuck with school and gained a little relief on his tuition from AB 540. Under the stipulations of AB 540, David does not qualify for FAFSA, Cal Grants, loans, a driver’s license, or even a work permit, but he is able to pay in-state tuition.

David stays focused and continues to make the most out of his education at UCLA. He is studying international economics and Korean and is a member of the UCLA Marching Band. He is the first Korean and undocumented student ever to become the head drummer in UCLA Marching Band history! Despite all his school commitments, he found time to win the Campus Progress National Speaker’s Contest this year. Now a senior preparing for graduation, David is looking toward a bleak future if the DREAM Act is not passed.

David is the founder of the Asian Pacific Islander component, called ASPIRE, of Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success (IDEAS) here at UCLA. These groups are a haven for undocumented students looking for support from peers and a way for documented students to learn about the issue. IDEAS and ASPIRE work on spreading knowledge about the DREAM Act to get it passed in the near future.

David is an inspiration. With high hopes and dreams, David plans on joining the U.S. Air Force after he graduates in the spring, if the DREAM Act passes. Having entered the school with all the right documentation, David is now graduating with none. But, his undocumented status does not get him down. Always happy and energetic, David thinks positively about his situation and he will not give up until he is a citizen.

Do not think that David Cho’s case is singular. In fact, out of the 181,700 students in the UC System, 340-630 are undocumented; 40-44% of these students are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. The DREAM Act could change that.

Many young adults are undocumented through no fault of their own. Families come to the U.S. in search of a better life for themselves, and though the reasons range, political persecution is one of the main causes for immigration. These families come with their young children, who have no knowledge about documentation or citizenship, to make a better situation out of a bad one; the kids are caught in the middle. The children grow up, find out that they are undocumented, and are left with no promise of future work, documentation, or citizenship. This is where the DREAM Act comes in.

The DREAM Act allows 6 years of legal residency to high school graduates, who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 15 and have continuously lived here for 5 years, eligibility for citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military for 2 years during that period. This is a controversial act that has been introduced and re-introduced since 2001. It is now gaining a lot of support amongst U.S. citizens and non-citizens. This act will allow young adults caught in between documentation status a chance to drive, vote, pay taxes and work legally. Connie Choi, an attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), believes that “it doesn’t matter [how the bill gets passed] it just depends on how it needs to be implemented at the right time.”

DREAM Act supporters are heating up the coals and lighting the fire. The time to act is now. It is up to us as a community to support each other. Lucia Lin a staff member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) remarks, “It’s difficult to get people to talk about these issues because it’s so sensitive. Fear to let other people know of their situation—the law, embarrassment, shame. Most Asian families prefer not to talk about the ‘bad stuff.’ The issue often gets ignored in the community. […] Most times kids do not want to speak up—it exposes themselves and their family.”

Lucia makes a point to note that the API community is stratified in regard to income and each person has a different story of how they got to the U.S. The American perception of the model minority, how Asians are hard workers and do everything by the book, and how much Asians really do buy into this misconception is detrimental to the community. As a community, we should give some assistance and help out brothers and sisters trying to reach the same goal we are: the American Dream.

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