Voces del Mañana Call for Reform

Fabiola Prieto

Denise Garcia stands before the class of 2008. She proudly wears her cap and gown as she thanks all who have supported her and who have convinced her that she deserves to be there.

She has prepared a speech that comes partly from her passion for writing, and partly from a duty that she undertook to inspire people like herself. She shares some childhood advice from her father: “This land is full of opportunity for those who want something better. So, take that opportunity regardless of what they deny you and you will gain something in the end.”

Garcia truly believes in these words, but she knows that “something” will not be enough. At the end of the ceremony, instead of a diploma, Garcia receives a piece of paper that reads: “Now what?” as does the rest of the class of 2008. This is, after all, a mock graduation. Garcia and her classmates represent some of the estimated 60,000 students nationwide without legal immigration status who graduate from high school every year.

Garcia was brought to the U.S. by her parents at the age of 3. Inspired by her father’s advice and the teachers who helped her develop her writing skills, she hopes to become an English professor and has started on that path by attending Glendale Community College. And although she knows that reaching that goal might cost her much more that it would to “an average American,” she explains that, like many other students in her situation, she is ambitious for a better life. Garcia is an active member of the student organization Voces del Manana.

Spanish for “Voices of Tomorrow,” the name was adopted by a group of students who, after attending a summer conference of students who want to transfer to UCLA, resolved that the only hope they had to achieve that goal was to organize.

“We work for the dream of a bright future of justice and opportunity for all young people who have worked their way through the schools of California to graduate from high school, but who have no residency documents and who wonder if they have a future in the land where they have lived for most of their lives,” they explain in their motto.

Tuition Relief

In 2001, AB 540 (Firebaugh), the bill submitted by state assembly members Marco Antonio Firebaugh, a Democrat, and Abel Maldonado, a Republican, was passed by the legislature in California. This bill allows qualified undocumented students to pay resident tuition in public colleges and universities. At the time, out-of-state tuition was seven times the resident tuition ($147 per unit). The passage of this bill was a big step for immigrant families since many students were left out of higher education and the benefits that come with it.

But that wasn’t the only hurdle to cross. These same undocumented students are denied state and federal financial aid even though many of them, according to the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), are “amongst the most talented: valedictorians, artist
and athletes.”

As student counselor Greg Perkins puts it, “These are the disadvantaged first-generation college students.”

Perkins recounts the first time Omar and Aurea (they chose not to give their last names), founders of Voces del Manana, walked into the Extended Opportunities Programs and Services (EOPS) office on campus to ask for assistance in forming the group.

Perkins says, “The purpose of EOPS is to help disadvantaged first-generation college students…Even though we’re not able to claim [AB 540 students] officially as our students, most of the counselors in here have a very open heart to them; so we do whatever we can outside of out roles to help them…I couldn’t say no.”

Now the adviser to Voces del Manana, Perkins has long been an advocate for academic advancement for these students. With a master’s degree in educational counseling, and a Spanish bilingual educational credential, he is one of the founders of the Glendale Community College’s AB 540 Committee, which was formed at about the same time as the student group. This committee of faculty and staff provides information, educational opportunities, and support to immigrant students.

Some of the services include a book assistance program, a book lending library, and access to some of the nearly 300 privately funded scholarships offered to GCC students. The committee, with support from Voces del Manana, has also created various scholarships, such as the AB 540 Community Service Scholarships, and the Dream Scholarships, which are intended specifically for AB 540 students. They are funded by the student government, faculty and foundations outside campus.

Despite the good will of those on campus, there are laws that prevent these students from following their career paths once they have managed to obtain their credentials. And that is the message that Voces Del Manana intended to portray with its
mock graduation.

The Big Picture

The big picture, as explained by the speakers invited to this gathering, is that something has to be done for the future of these youths that are being left behind by state and federal policies, and, more importantly, for the welfare of California.

“We need to realize that our baby boomers are starting to retire and that pretty soon we’re going to have a lot of high-paying, highly skilled jobs available; and who’s going to fill them?” asked Alejandra Velasquez, executive director of CHIRLA.
What we have been doing, Velasquez said, is “we’ve been importing people from other countries to fill these jobs. So, why not educate out local youth?”

A representative from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Angelica Salas said, “When we help [AB 540] students, we help ourselves…from their contribution as teachers, as doctors, as lawyers, as business leaders… Let their educational success be our state success.”

California’s Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez spoke about a bill he had introduced, AB 2083, that would open access to limited state financial aid, including grants, scholarships, work-study and loan programs for undocumented students. “I want the governor to have an opportunity to meet with some of the bright minds who would benefit from this kind of investment in California,” he said.

What emerged as a whisper in the fall of 2005 has now become a shout to Sacramento. Perkins explains that he thought it would be difficult to recruit members for Voces del Manana. “A lot of the AB 540 students opt to fly under the radar, for obvious reasons: they don’t want to be noticed…At the same time, they have very difficult lives.

“When [Voces del Manana] was a small group, they were almost like a therapy group where they would sit in a circle and talk about their problems and experiences and support each other,” Perkins remembered.

Although this organization has come a long way and is now part of the California DREAM Network with representatives in Sacramento, there are still many who oppose their cause. Some argue services such as financial aid and the right to work in this country are only for those who obey the laws. Others think that immigrants should not take the money reserved for California’s citizens.
But according to CHIRLA, these students make a major contribution to state funding for education. An annual report on AB 540 tuition exemptions of 2005-06 shows that more than $6 million was taken from AB 540 student tuition to contribute to the institutional fund set aside for financial aid.

For those who claim that “Mexicans” just want to jump the fence and take over California (a sentiment shared by many
anti-immigration blogs), Voces del Manana says that AB 540 students are not only from south of the border. This semester, an Armenian student was awarded one of the AB 540 scholarships.

Among the more than 50 active members in Voces del Manana, are some who are fully documented citizens. “There are those who are friends and others who think it’s an important cause and want to help,” Perkins said.