Luis Perez has spent much of his life waiting.
An illegal immigrant who has lived in the United States since he was 9 years old, Perez graduated from high school with honors.
But he had to bide his time at a community college – the only school he could afford – until a new law made it possible for Perez and thousands of other undocumented students in California to pay in-state college tuition, rather than sky-high out-of-state fees.
Two years later, Perez had to put his dream of law school on hold.
With no access to public scholarships or financial aid, Perez spent the next few years working odd construction jobs until he could afford law school.
“It’s really a matter of equal access to higher education,” Perez said. “For a lot of these students, the main obstacle is financial. Most of them have the potential of being straight-A students. Most of them have the potential of becoming attorneys and doctors and teachers and anything they want.
“But what gets in their way is the ability to pay tuition,” he said.
The California Dream Act, which cleared a major hurdle today, could make it financially easier for undocumented students to earn college degrees.
The second half of the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to apply for public financial aid, passed the State Senate today, a little more than a month after Gov. Jerry Brown signed its partner bill granting illegal immigrants access to private scholarship dollars.
If signed by Brown, AB 131 will make public financial aid money such as Cal Grants available to illegal immigrants who have earned a high school diploma after attending a California high school for at least three years.
“This acknowledges that these students are true Californians,” Perez said. “It shows that the state and legislators are willing to invest in them and now it’s up to the Governor to agree with them.”
Opponents, however, have said that the legislation doesn’t make sense since it will not change students’ immigration status so they still won’t be able to get work permits.
Others, including Senator Doug LaMalfa R-Richvale, argued it was the wrong time to further stretch state dollars.
“Last year, public financing was cut to existing students,” LaMalfa’s Chief of Staff Mark Spannagel said. “The system is financially strapped and it doesn’t exactly make sense to expand it at this point, when we can’t even cover what we had traditionally been covering.
“It will further cash-strap the system.”
Two earlier attempts to pass similar legislation were vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But Perez said this time around the California Dream Act has a better chance.
“It’s looking great this time. When he was campaigning, Gov. Brown said he would sign it as soon as it came to his desk," Perez said. "So we’re really excited about him keeping that promise."
These days, Perez divides his time between Los Angeles, where he continues to work various construction jobs, and Elk Grove, where he lives with family members while studying for the bar exam and lobbying on behalf of the Dream Act.
“Ever since elementary school, people around me told me I needed to go to college,” Perez said. “It was my long-term goal even before I realized I was undocumented.”
An honors student who was active with his high school’s student government, Perez was pursued by college recruiters.
“I thought that undocumented students weren’t allowed to go to college, so I made up the story that I wanted to go to art school,” Perez said.
Later, he learned that illegal immigrants weren’t prohibited from attending state universities – they just had to pay out-of-state or international tuition, which was often double or triple what state residents paid.
“On a practical level, it was a barrier for many of us who come from poor immigrant families,” Perez said. “Not having the money to attend is just as bad as not being allowed to go.”
While he was a student at Los Angeles Mission Community College, Perez once again became active with the student government and he lobbied area politicians to pass AB540, allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
When the law passed, Perez was finally able to afford a four-year school and he transferred to University of California, Los Angeles.
“I was part of the first wave of undocumented students on the UC campus,” Perez said. “Prior to AB540, it was impossible for us to afford the fees.”
Perez said the California Dream Act will do even more to reduce financial hurdles.
“It will give undocumented students some financial aid so they can get to the business of being students and stop worrying about the money, at least while they’re studying,” he said.
At the age of 30, Perez is still waiting.
He’s scheduled to take the bar exam in January, but in the meantime he’s waiting for the State Bar of California to decide whether to license undocumented students to pass the test.