With wire-framed glasses and a direct, penetrating Gandhi-like gaze, Ricardo Leyva comes off as much older than his 23 years. If not for the young-looking face, the slight frame and the occasional instance of youthful optimism, one might take him for 10 years his senior.
He is the head of the Coalition Of Student Activists (COSA), a local grassroots organization of students and community activists pushing for the passage of two bills in Congress that aim to make education more accessible to the children of undocumented immigrants.
Not only is he the president, he's also the poster-child of everything the group is fighting for. In a real way, his future success is directly tied to the passage of the Student Adjustment Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education relief for Alien Minors) in the U.S. Senate. Both were introduced in the last session of Congress-the 107th-but not voted on. The Student Adjustment Act has been reintroduced in the current session and is awaiting enough support to be called to a vote.
COSA, comprising primarily students from the University of California, San Diego and San Diego City College, held a rally April 12 at City College that drew more than 50 people. Balloons were released, only to the length of their strings, as a symbolic demonstration of the limitations faced by undocumented immigrants.
Leyva, among the top of his high school class, took a 3.96 grade point average, a track career and two years of boxing from his time at Garfield High School and went on to City College, where he was a senator in the student government and a member of both the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and the MESA club. He parlayed his two years of A and B grades at City College into a slot at UCSD, where he enrolled three semesters ago as a bioengineering major and music minor.
He's since become a college dropout, fighting for the passage of the twin bills that might allow him to go back to school.
Leyva was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 11 years old; he's the product of an American public school education. He's fortunate to live in California, one of four states in the country (the others are Utah, New York and Texas) that allow the children of undocumented immigrants to enroll in public universities. Because he's not documented, though, he can't work. Therefore, he can't pay tuition, which means he can't go to school. And that leaves him trapped in the situation.
He's caught between the lines, as are thousands of other children of illegal immigrants. They're bright and driven, but even though they have the prerequisites to move onto higher education, they're forbidden to do so by law or indirectly by the fact they can't legally work to pay tuition.
COSA vice president Abdul Aboushadi, like Leyva, enrolled at UCSD as a bioengineering major three semesters ago. He has also been compelled to drop out for financial reasons.
"It's great that we're allowed to go to college in California," Aboushadi says, "but I'm not allowed to work, so I can't afford tuition, so I don't go to school. And most scholarships require residency, so those doors are closed to us."
The lines these students are caught between are both societal and political, and they're heating up. The debate over the two bills is drawing strong language from both sides.
Immigration law reformers on the liberal side are pushing for passage of the bills, claiming that denying good students an education is wrong, educating people who will be in the country regardless can only help society and children who were brought to this country without a choice should not be punished for their parents' actions.
Those on the conservative side looking to shore up immigration laws are pushing just as hard to defeat the bills. They point out that laws on the books since 1996 expressly forbid the aiding of illegal immigrants, no matter the reason for their entry into the country. They claim passage of the two bills can only lead to an increase in illegal immigration and point to the fact that awarding university placement spots and financial aid to undocumented students will prevent educational opportunities to U.S.-born children.
Fighting for the legislation they see as their shot at an education, Leyva, Aboushadi and a small group of COSA members used the second week in April-designated as a national call-to-action period by proponents-to meet with representatives of three of California's members of Congress. An April 15 meeting with Humberto Peraza, a representative of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, was followed by a meeting at the San Diego office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein on April 16. The following day, Rep. Bob Filner's deputy press secretary told a COSA delegation the congressman, who co-sponsored the last Student Adjustment Act, would be supporting the bill in the current session.
The bill has been sponsored in both sessions by Utah Rep. Chris Cannon. The new bill was sent to the House Judiciary Committee on April 9. Thirty-one other representatives have co-sponsored it, including eight from California. The majority of bipartisan support for the bill has come from border states and those with high Latino populations, including Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York.
Despite bipartisan support, the previous version of the bill, in the 107th Congress, died in committee before reaching a full vote. Similarly, the Dream Act, introduced to the 107th Congress by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and co-sponsored by Boxer, also died in committee. It is expected to be reintroduced soon.
The bills call for three primary changes: first, a repeal of the 1996 law that effectively forces states to offer out-of-state students the same tuition rates as those enjoyed by undocumented students who might be granted in-state status. Secondly, the acts would allow those junior high and high school students who have "good moral character," have resided in the U.S. for at least five years and who live in the country when the law is enacted to obtain immigration relief, allowing them to go to college and eventually become U.S. citizens. Third, the bills would allow students applying for immigration relief to obtain the Pell Grants and student loans available to other students.
To increase the pressure on Congress to bring the bills to a vote, COSA says it's planning a public-awareness campaign and has begun readying itself to combine efforts with other grassroots coalitions across the country.
The 20-member group was co-founded last year by Leyva and City College student Mario Ponce, a Honduras native who's now a naturalized U.S. citizen. Leyva, though he has lived in the U.S. for 12 of his 23 years, is still seeking documentation.
"COSA started because Ricky [Leyva] is one of my best friends and I wanted to help him," Ponce says. "I took him to my family's [immigration] attorney, Karla Straus, and she told us there was nothing she could do for him. She told us about the Dream Act and the Student Adjustment Act and recommended starting a coalition."
Honduran, Mexican, Cambodian and Arab ethnicities were all represented in the small COSA envoy that made the rounds of congressional offices last week. Aboushadi, of Middle Eastern descent, is quick to point out that the situation is not unique to Latinos. The children of illegal aliens of all ethnic backgrounds are barred from higher education and educational funding by federal law.
A major argument of COSA and immigration-reform activists is that, in many cases, the children of illegal immigrants enter the country at such a young age they can't be considered products of their birth countries-they're raised American. They also point out that most of these children were young enough when brought to the U.S. that they have no clear choice in the matter.
"At age 7," Aboushadi says, "you don't say, "Well, Mom and Dad, I think I'm just going to stay here.'"
He argues further that making education available to these children-who have gone through the American public education system-can only benefit the country, as an educated society is more productive, less violent and freer of crime. Students legalized by the bill would also become taxpayers, Aboushadi says, eliminating a burden on the system.
A strong and vocal opposition to the bills has arisen around the nation, as well. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, both Republicans, say the bill would give incentive to illegal immigrants to come to the United States.
Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, also a Republican, has noted the illegality of many current, lax immigration policies.
"We need, of course, to enforce our immigration laws which are generous to immigrants," Sen. Sessions told CityBeat. "I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
Brent Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says the notion these bills will increase illegal immigration is misguided.
"This argument's used in every case," he says. "It's kind of like saying we've got to make the lives of illegal immigrants miserable to make sure other illegals don't come here. They come here for one reason only, and that's jobs. They're getting the jobs; that's the draw. It's not so kids can go to college-that's not even a thought when they come here. The jobs are plentiful and the system's not stopping that-the jobs are still there, and in fact, we're benefiting from them."
National radio personality Laura Ingraham implies that a combination of politics (attracting Latino votes) and money (providing business-owners a constant source of cheap labor)-not altruism-has enticed conservative and Republican congressmen to cross party lines and support the bill.
"That the majority of illegal immigrant students want to work hard and better their lives is not in question," she writes. "The problem is that for each slot an illegal immigrant takes at a state college or university, it is one less spot for American students or for immigrants who have followed immigration laws and procedures."
Regardless of the pros and the cons, the Student Adjustment Act is still awaiting a vote-the Dream Act is awaiting reintroduction. Wilkes thinks the fact the bills died in committee in the last session of Congress is not a sign of lack of support, but rather of changes in the Republican Party.
"It's one of those bills that points out the discrepancy between the old Republican Party and the new Republican Party," he says. "The new RP says they support Hispanics and immigrants; the old RP used immigration as a wedge issue. Today we have President Bush, who takes photos with Latinos and speaks a few lines of Spanish. And now here's an issue [Student Adjustment Act] where they have to vote on it. I think they're afraid to vote; it would expose the fissure between the old guard and the new guard-force party members to take a side."
In the end, regardless of political inclination, a few of the facts are clear: by current law the children of illegal immigrants do not have the right to higher education, nor is the U.S. government responsible for it. Secondly, in a national university system with finite resources, slots given to undocumented students will come at the expense of both natural citizens and documented immigrants.
Thirdly, the largest single reason for the burgeoning immigrant population-1 million immigrants per year-is job availability; and it's safe to say those jobs will not be going away any time soon. Finally, hundreds of thousands (some figures say up to 600,000) of students like Ricardo Leyva are denied the opportunity to a higher education every year.
For his part, Leyva, quiet, smiling and gazing behind those wire-rimmed glasses, doesn't believe the bills will encourage illegal immigration, and he confidently rattles off several reasons.
When asked about taking spots away from American kids, Leyva, who speaks perfect English and was a student in the San Diego Unified School District when the first George Bush was in office, breaks his undeviating gaze and stares at the floor.
"There are many kids out there who are able to go to school any time they want, but they aren't driven," he says. "It's kind of ironic."