A decade of struggle precedes DREAM Act's passage

By Jessica Rossoni | Staff Get Adobe Flash player

On July 25, Assemblymember Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, stood at the center of the crowded Los Angeles Community College library as reporters, supporters and others looked on. In a few moments Gov. Jerry Brown would sign a key piece of Cedillo's legislation into law, literally on his back.

With the stroke of a pen, undocumented students would for the first time have access to private financial aid from state schools. A few months later Brown signed another, more controversial bill by Cedillo and granted those same students full access to the same financial aid as legal California residents.

The signatures marked a sort of conclusion to a decade-long journey for Cedillo.

"I feel very happy for the students and families and very happy for the state," Cedillo said shortly after the second half of the bill was also signed into law. "I'm happy for the fact that we will now have at our disposal the intellectual resource of these young men and women who are deserving."

In recent months, coverage of the California DREAM Act has flooded media outlets and reignited discord over immigration. The term "undocumented" became part of the daily vocabulary on California's college campuses, raising issues of citizenship, law and the right to public education in the process.

However, amongst all the urgency and current debate surrounding AB 130 and 131, the bills may represent a loud clap of thunder in a storm that has otherwise quietly raged for over a decade.

10 years, three vetoes, one dream

The legislative journey leading to the California DREAM Act began when Cedillo co-authored AB 1197 with Assemblymember Marco Antonio Firebaugh 11 years ago. This bill was the duo's first attempt to allow certain undocumented and out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition to attend schools of higher education in California.

However, that bill was vetoed because of a federal law that stated that undocumented immigrants could not have access to benefits unless documented residents could also qualify. Cedillo and Firebaugh tried again a year later with AB 540, which allowed in-state tuition for any student who had attended high school in California for at least three years. This allowed both out-of-state and undocumented students to qualify.

Former Gov. Gray Davis signed the bill into law on Oct. 12, 2001, and the UC Board of Regents voted to adopt AB 540 shortly thereafter. In 2002, Cedillo's wife Ruby lost a battle with cancer. Prior to her death, Cedillo said he was committed to continuing his fight for immigrant's rights in the state.

That effort first took the form of a bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licences, but Cedillo soon returned to education issues and pursued passage of the California DREAM Act.

In 2006, Cedillo's first version of the DREAM Act — the first of four iterations he would author over the next five years — was making its way to the governor's desk when Firebaugh passed away at the age of 39 due to liver complications.

Between 2006 and 2010 former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would veto three versions of the DREAM Act, calling the bills unwise in fiscally uncertain times.

"Given the precarious fiscal situation that the state faces, it would not be practical to adopt a new policy that would limit the financial aid available to students that are in California legally, in order to provide that benefit to those students who are not," Schwarzenegger said in a 2010 veto message.

Despite these failures, Cedillo refused to give up and hoped that a change in leadership would breathe new life into the issue.

"These are pressing issues for the state, and they don't go away," Cedillo said. "It was important for us to keep this issue in the hearts and minds of the people of California, so we continued."

His persistence paid off with the election of Brown in November 2010. Brown, a longtime Democrat, had campaigned with the promise of signing the DREAM Act should it reach his desk. His opponent Meg Whitman, on the other hand, took an opposite stance, vowing to ban the admission of undocumented students to the UC, CSU and community college systems.

Within a year of taking office, Brown fulfilled Cedillo's dream and signed his bills into law.

A "false dream"

In tandem with Cedillo's efforts, other state leaders have led a steady campaign against the DREAM Act. Opponents say Cedillo's efforts are a waste of state dollars in a time of unprecedented scarcity.

More than that, Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, calls the DREAM Act nothing but a false promise. Current federal citizenship laws still prevent undocumented students from obtaining long-term employment. And until this changes, he said, undocumented students will inevitably face hardships in starting a career, even with financial aid and a degree.

"I think the first is it's a false dream to the students because when they graduate without legal documentation, no employee can legally hire you," he said in an interview after the DREAM Act passed.

Those in opposition to the DREAM Act have also argued throughout the decade-long battle that providing for those who are not legally residing in California unjustly takes limited funds away from legal residents.

"More common, practical views on things should be taking place," Hagman said. "This is a frustrating place because the policies and the logic doesn't seem to be there. I think our primary job is to deal with the resources that we have, and we obviously aren't doing that."

In the last few years, Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, has emerged in the state Assembly as a leader for opponents of legislation put forth by Cedillo. Less than two days after AB 131 was signed into law, the assembly member filed referendum papers to freeze its implementation, and he is actively leading a campaign to overturn AB 131.

A referendum will require signatures from approximately 505,000 valid voters to be placed on the 2012 ballot. Hagman has joined the backlash against the DREAM Act and pledged to support Donnelly in his efforts to stop the second half of the DREAM Act.

Hagman and others have claimed that California and the nation should wait until national comprehensive immigration reform takes place before implementing laws such as the DREAM Act.

Hagman said he believes though the legislature passed the act, it is not fully representing California's voters.

"I really do think the legislature is not reflective of California as a whole," he said.

Despite the looming threat of referendum, supporters for the DREAM Act continue to celebrate what many activists deem to be a victory at the end of a long line in years of struggle.

Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher and an organizer for the civil rights advocacy group By Any Means Necessary, has fought for immigrant rights since 1995, when she co-founded the organization.

"I'm so happy because to me, it's a real confirmation to all the young people who fought for so many years for this, that when we take collective action and fight for things that politicians are not prepared to do, we can win," she said. "It's an opportunity for this whole generation to feel they're own strength, and know that we can make history."