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Degrees of Inequality

Fleeing a troubled home life, Ana Diaz left her Mexican city of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, and headed to Tijuana. There, during a hot summer night, she and her four children — including her 8-month-old Ana — crossed miles of rugged terrain before they managed to sneak by the Border Patrol and onto American soil.

Eight years later, Diaz, 30, lives in South-Central L.A. and struggles to have her children get ahead in life. She works as a night janitor in Westwood. She believes that one of the hurdles that remains to be crossed is making higher education more accessible to undocumented students like her four children.

Last week, Diaz and dozens of other janitors who belong to the Service Employees International Union 1877 joined a group of California legislators and local elected leaders to rally support for state Assembly Bill 540, which would enable illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition as other state residents if they have attended a state school for three years. Under current law, undocumented students who live in California must pay higher, out-of-state tuition.

“My children are not criminals. Even though I work during the night, I make sure to take all four of them to school,” Diaz said at the rally in front of Belmont High School last week. “I came to this country for a better life for my children; they are hard-working students who deserve a chance.”

Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh’s bill has been approved by the state Assembly and will be reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 27. If the committee passes it, the bill will move to the Senate before going to Governor Gray Davis, who vetoed a similar bill last year.

Davis contended that the earlier bill, when interpreted in light of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, would have had the effect of requiring California to give in-state tuition to students from anywhere in the country. Firebaugh says his bill avoids this problem by specifying that undocumented students must attend high school in California for three years and graduate to qualify for the in-state tuition rate.

With anti-immigrant sentiments waning, Firebaugh believes that the bill is more in tune with mainstream beliefs and would make it easier for Davis to sign it.

Stories abound of bright, exceptional, immigrant high school students who can’t afford higher education, Firebaugh said. Not only is this unfair and a cause of broken dreams, he says, but it also causes the state to lose what could be some of its best talent.

“We are not giving anyone a handout or a free ride. What we are saying is that we are giving you an opportunity,” Firebaugh told the protesters, who are urging Davis to support AB 540. “This bill is about equity, it’s about opportunity. It’s about ensuring that California high school students — our kids — have a fair shot at a college education.”

For janitor and Mexican national Blanca Perez, a mother of two, supporting the bill is personal; her younger brother, Guillermo, who is undocumented, was attending Los Angeles Community College. He was looking to become a lawyer, but dropped out because he couldn’t afford the out-of-state tuition needed for law school.

“Now he works as a janitor,” said Perez, who lives in Pico-Union. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to my children; I don’t want them to work in my type of work.”


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