A Personal History of Undocumented Student Support at U.C. Berkeley

By: Alberto Ledesma


In the Spring of 2012 the University of California at Berkeley launched the first-ever student services office exclusively dedicated to serving undocumented college students. Located within its fifty-year-old Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the Undocumented Student Program Office (USP) became an instant hit among Berkeley’s two hundred or so undocumented students. These undergraduates now had a trained academic counselor on campus to whom they could safely disclose their status, a service which alone provided a much needed relief for students for whom, almost without exception, the weight of being undocumented had taken a psychological toll. An added bonus was that this advisor would also be able to help them deal with the financial pressures of being undocumented students at an extremely competitive Research One university.

For outside observers, the novelty and promise represented by the USP was hard to ignore. Newspaper reporters, administrators from other universities, and higher-ed researchers were eager to know more about the USP as the first service of its kind at any American four-year university and soon they were asking to meet with the EOP Director, Fabrizio Mejía, and the newly hired USP Coordinator, Meng So. Chancellor Robert Birgeneau also expressed how proud he was about the creation of the new USP office. At public events on- and off-campus, he enthusiastically explained why launching the new USP office was so important to the university. On multiple occasions he made such statements as, “We cannot continue to lose the precious academic talent possessed by these undocumented students.”

The work of the Undocumented Student Program also attracted the attention of Elise Haas and the Haas Jr. Foundation. Elise Hass’ support for the program was instrumental in getting the USP off the ground, as it was her 2 year gift of $300,000, an offering made to honor her father, which made the Haas Dreamer’s Resource Center a reality. Less than a year later, the Haas Jr Foundation made a one million dollar donation to establish undocumented student scholarships at Berkeley, the largest ever privately funded financial aid gift aimed at undocumented students. The announcement made national news, with numerous news outlets such as NPR’s “All Things Considered” noting that this gift made the realization of the California Dream Act a concrete reality for UC Berkeley students. The Dreamers’ Resource Center, a designated office area meant to help undocumented students looking for information, advising, and a sense of place within a university of 35,000 students, was also the first physical space of its kind in the nation.

For me, the emergence of the USP triggered a mix of conflicting emotions. Although I have spent many years on the Berkeley campus, having earned my bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees at this campus since first entering Berkeley in the mid 1980s, the success of the USP brought back all the years of lobbying I spent anonymously advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrant students along with a handful of other colleagues on campus. Though I have held the titles of undergraduate student, graduate student, lecturer, professor, and am now an academic staff member, the principal reason that the creation of the USP and the Dreamers’ Resource Center piqued my interest so passionately was that I had also once been an undocumented student on this campus. Suddenly, a physical space existed at Berkeley for the kind of student I had once been, a space that, in all honesty, I never thought would be built.

To be sure, the Undocumented Student Resource Center is a beautiful space—a brightly lit room located near the entrance to the Cesar Chavez Student Center, with plush, comfy couches, shiny iMacs, and an intricately patterned olive-green carpet. It is not hard to tell that someone spent a good sum of money to set it up; no hand-me-downs here. Two of the walls in the room are adorned from floor to ceiling with a Civil Rights-era themed mural, with the likenesses of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta gazing towards some imaginary distance. A big screen television glows above the pristine decor, as a well-timed sequence of photos and slogans announce the menu of specific services undocumented students can get.

At first, when it opened, I did not know exactly what comprised the Dreamers’ Resource Center. Though I had been a member of the staff committee that had originally recommended its creation, and though I now passed in front of its door everyday (given that it is located in the same building as my home department), in those initial days of it being open, the center was always too busy for me to get a good peek inside. What I did notice were all the giddy students smiling as they entered and exited the space. And this is what caused me think about my own experience.

No one outside my family and high school counselor knew that I was undocumented when I entered Berkeley in 1984. I had been accepted as a Summer Bridge student, the beneficiary of Affirmative Action and whatever my high school counselor had written on my application before he had mailed it off the night when it was due. No matter that I had been the Student Body President or that I had been deemed as one of the most academically talented students at Oakland’s Fremont High School, being an “illegal alien” student was something I did not care to talk about in college. At that time there were no “undocumented an unafraid” student activists willing to be arrested in order to affect immigration policy. Instead, it seemed that, if there were indeed other undocumented students at Berkeley, we all lived in absolute shadows, only acknowledging our undocumented status in whispered conversations across family dinner tables.

I now realize that my having been undocumented affected my view of the world in ways more complex than I once thought. It wasn’t just that I was an overly neurotic student, always fearful that at any moment I was going to be found out and deported. I was also exceptionally perceptive to details that other students seemed to take for granted. For example, I still recall standing in line in Sproul Hall one day to ask about paying my tuition in installments. That morning, my father had instructed me to “Go and see if we could pay a little less”, the concern over our family having enough money to eat that month casting a deep pall over his eyes. It was the start of the Spring semester of my freshman year and already my need to work at an after-school job had begun affecting my grades. Just as I was about to speak with the lady behind the counter, I noticed a newspaper clipping taped on the wall next to her desk with the heading, “UCPD arrests illegal alien student.” The article sent chills down my spine; but, as I squinted my eyes to see what more I could read, I tried to keep a straight face and just walked away.

None of my fellow students at Berkeley ever spoke about being undocumented during those years. Not even when the Immigration, Reform, and Control Act of 1986 was passed did other students who were also going through amnesty step forward to disclose their experience. Instead, we walked past each other in the halls of the San Francisco Federal Building, usually doing a double-take as we recognized each other in the crowd.

Many years later, shortly after California’s Proposition 187 had been passed and a few years after the first batches of amnestied students had become naturalized citizens, the first widespread testimonials of former undocumented immigrant students became public. One of these students had been a close friend of mine at Berkeley. We had started in the same year and had taken many classes together, never really knowing the harrowing psychological traumas we were each silently enduring. Like me, Leticia had been enrolled at Berkeley as an undocumented student. Unlike me, however, she had been identified as an undocumented student and the university had initiated a lawsuit against her. What resulted from that lawsuit was the landmark “Leticia A” case and the ruling that followed, all of it acting as the legal precursor to the current California Dream Act.

I interviewed Leticia A a few years after Proposition 187 had been passed. We were both upset about the growing intolerance towards immigrants in California and so we had chosen to come together to see if I could do something with her story, maybe turn it into a book. A lot had changed since our undergrad years; I had chosen to pursue an academic career and was now a professor of literature at the California State University campus located in Monterey Bay. She was now a rising entrepreneur. To address my frustration about the negative political climate in California, I was now writing essays and doing research focusing on immigrant subjects. Leticia was also excited about our collaboration, especially now that she had returned to school after years of working to pay off her still-large legal expenses.

She told me about the formation of the “Leticia A Network,” how in an effort to make sure that the Leticia A Ruling was followed, a group of Southern California educators had come together to support the growing population of undocumented immigrant students seeking access to California colleges. “I never realized that my experience meant so much to them,” she said as we sat at a coffee shop, my tape recorder running as I sipped my single Americano. And though the Bradford Decision had undone, just a few years later, all of the benefits that students had gained from her winning her case, it was clear that even a decade after her ordeal, her story was still inspiring undocumented immigrant students.
“You should have seen just how many of those kids came to see me with tears in their eyes to thank me for going ahead with my lawsuit. It made me glad that in spite of all the fear I felt, I still went ahead with the case.”

The Leticia A case and the network that emerged from it were instrumental in the development of a movement in the California Legislature to give undocumented students an opportunity to earn a college education. What the Bradford decision had undone, Assembly Bill 540, which was adopted in 2001, sought to restore. Authored by State Assemblyman, Marco Antonio Firebaugh, A.B. 540 enabled undocumented immigrant students who had attended a California high school for at least three consecutive years, to be classified as state residents. This made the cost of attending college more affordable. Ten years later, another State Assembly member, Gil Cedillo, succeeded in getting Assembly Bills 130 and 131 adopted. Commonly referred to as “The California Dream Act,” A.B. 130 and 131 enabled undocumented immigrant students in California colleges to be eligible for privately donated scholarships.

In the fall of 2000, several months after I had interviewed Leticia A, and soon after making the transition from being a full-time college professor to now being a full-time member of the university student services staff, I was invited to join Berkeley’s Immigrant Students Issues Coalition (ISIC). At that time, ISIC was still young, an organization started at Berkeley by staff concerned that the needs of Berkeley’s growing immigrant population were not being met. In ISIC I found a community that valued the same issues I valued. Up to that moment, I had written a dissertation and published a few chapters focusing on the representations of undocumented immigrants within Mexican American fiction. In ISIC, however, I was made aware of stories more compelling than any I had read in all my years of doing research.

We focused on the general immigrant student experience on campus during the first few years of my membership in ISIC. For example, as a result of a large survey of Berkeley undergraduates, we found that a significant percentage of immigrant students who arrived on campus were primarily interested in medical or business majors, a number that was significantly higher than that of non-immigrant students. The cultural pressures to succeed economically that all immigrants are subjected to, we concluded, likely influenced this general career interest. We were particularly fascinated by the fact that second-generation offspring of immigrant generations tended to prefer, in contrast, majors that focused on reclaiming cultural identities—sociology, literature, and Ethnic Studies. We used this information to make presentations to other staff organizations on campus regarding the contrasting epistemologies between first and second generations of immigrant-heritage students on campus. Soon, we were being invited to present at campus conferences and divisional administrative meetings.

It wasn’t until several years after I had joined ISIC that we began focusing on the needs and experiences of undocumented students. Marco Antonio Firebaugh’s AB540 had just been passed by the California Legislature and now we were seeing a spike in the number of undocumented immigrant students entering Berkeley and struggling with their tuition, housing, and food costs.

In 2007, buoyed by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s article in the Los Angeles Times, where he called for the development of student aid resources for undocumented immigrant students, ISIC developed a presentation to be delivered at Berkeley’s Advising Conference—a coming together of Berkeley’s student services staff professionals—which focused on Generation 1.5 immigrant students and those students affected by the AB540 policy. The conference met at the Clark Kerr campus near UC Berkeley, where ISIC delivered a two-hour presentation to more than fifty staff from throughout campus. Among our presenters were members of a new student organization composed almost entirely of AB540 students—RISE. RISE, or Rising Immigrant Scholars Through Education, was formed by undocumented immigrant students who, after being faced with the same challenges all undocumented immigrant students at Berkeley faced, decided to find solutions by themselves and their shared ingenuity. Besides providing a space for undocumented students to work through their challenges, RISE became a prime training ground for undocumented student campus leaders, many of whom teamed up with organizations such as Educators for a Fair Consideration—an early ISIC partner—to continue their professional development. About five years ago, it was a coalition of RISE and ISIC that proposed the creation of an Immigrant Student Center at UC Berkeley.

To a degree, the creation of the USP and the Dreamer’s Resoure Center was expedited by the political developments in Arizona in 2010. While the proposal of a new service paradigm for undocumented students that RISE and ISIC had developed had been presented to various campus partners, it was only when students conducted a hunger strike in front of California Hall that the administration found out about it. The hunger strike had materialized over night, as a group of students sought to protest the approval of Arizona’s SB1070, an immigration bill that required police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected of being undocumented. Ten days after it began, the hunger strike concluded when the campus administration agreed to set up a task force to consider new approaches to serving the growing population of undocumented students on campus. Chancellor Birgeneau also agreed to take a more visible stance opposing Arizona’s law. A year after the task force was created, the USP and the Dreamers Resource Center became a reality.

For those of us who participated in The Chancellor’s Task Force for Undocumented Students, the creation of the Undocumented Student Program and the Dreamers Resource Center represented the success of the initiatives that, in partnership with EOP and Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion, ISIC and RISE first envisioned. Though borne out of uncertainty, the new service model is now considered a national trendsetter. And yet, for me, I am still a little hesitant about accepting that the institutionalization of undocumented immigrant student support at Berkeley has been officially achieved. As of now, much of the material support for these entities seems to be the result of outside gifts rather than permanent university investments. While the unprecedented activism of undocumented immigrant students, particularly during this past presidential election, has made supporting undocumented immigrant students currently in college a more politically pragmatic option for campus administrators, that support is fickle. As we have seen with the Leticia A Network, just because undocumented students have gained new services does not mean they will keep them.

Knowing what I know now, I have often wondered what I would have said to Leticia A had I been her advisor in 1984. Would I have dissuaded her from applying to Berkeley knowing that she would be getting sued for it? The truth is that I would not have asked her to do anything other than what she did because by standing up for herself, by asserting that even though she was undocumented she still deserved a chance at a college education, she was standing up for all of us who were too scared to acknowledge who we really were. She was, in fact, the first undocumented and unafraid person I knew, the source not of an undocumented immigrant pride movement, but of a movement that recognized the need to be treated with dignity regardless of one’s immigration status. I will always be thankful to her for showing me that if I want people to stop treating me as an undocumented person, I have to stop acting as if my efforts, academic or otherwise, are illegitimate; if we want social transformation, we first have to transform ourselves.

About twelve years ago I was lucky enough to attend Leticia’s graduation from college. She was no longer at Berkeley and was now graduating from a master’s program with distinction. It was a sunny day in the middle of June and a cool wind was blowing as an overflow crowd gathered at her new university’s amphitheater. Her whole family had driven from all parts of California for the event, all of them fighting for the closest spot to the stage in order to witness the Dean shaking Leticia’s hand. At that time I was already wrestling with whether or not I was going to remain on track with my academic career. I don’t know exactly why, but as Leticia walked towards the Dean to get her diploma, as she turned to the audience and smiled, I felt a tear streaking down my cheek.

“Allergies,” I said to Leticia’s husband when he asked if I was okay.

If I had the chance, I would also thank Leticia for helping inspire, in not that indirect a way, the Undocumented Student Program at Berkeley. Her case, and the network that arose from it, helped create AB540, it generated a flow of students that propelled ISIC and RISE into action. She did not have the benefit of a well-connected (facebook and twitter) national movement by other undocumented immigrant students to give her the courage to act. And still she did. And though my past experience sometimes tells me that it would be a mistake for undocumented students to assume that the USP and the Dreamers Resource Center will always be there and that they will always be funded with the same vigor as they are being funded now, the history of progressive educational programs dictates that we must not let up the fight.

Right now, at Berkeley, these programs for undocumented immigrant students serve as an oasis in the desert, temporarily providing sanctuary from what is otherwise a cruel détente regarding federal Dream Act. Hopefully, the model will be replicated at all other UC campuses and the UC Office of the President will coordinate best practices. More of California’s students certainly deserve to benefit from the Chancellor Birgeneau’s and Leticia A’s prophetic vision.

Alberto Ledesma is a Writing Program Coordinator at U.C. Berkeley’s Student Learning Center. He is also the artist behind the facebook series, “Diary of a Dreamer,” (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2052540105718.2111695.1010995037&type=1&l=ec06bb0674)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s