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Undocumented, Unstoppable, Undeniably Unafraid: The Battle for Opportunity For All 

On January 23, 2024, three days before the UC Regents would break their promise to thousands of students, UC Berkeley undocumented students and allies marched across campus advocating for all University of California students’ right to work regardless of their immigration status. Representatives from every UC campus, including UCLA, flew and drove out to participate in this March for Opportunity.

Source: @ucla_cilp on Instagram

“We have nothing to lose but our chains!” chanted a crowd of students holding picket signs that read “Undocumented, Unstoppable, Undeniably Unafraid.” This March for Opportunity was led by the Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS) club at UC Berkeley, directed by the Opportunity 4 All (O4All) campaign. 

The UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy and the UCLA Labor Center launched Opportunity 4 All in 2022. They argue that “the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) — the 1986 federal prohibition on hiring undocumented people — does not include state entities like the University of California.” 

Currently, students without a Social Security number cannot apply to work study, which creates an economic and emotional burden on undocumented students. Living in the land of opportunity and attending institutions that promise access to necessary resources for higher education, yet restricting access to equal job opportunities, is unjust. 

On May 18, 2023, the O4All campaign obtained its first win when the UC Regents announced their support for removing hiring restrictions for undocumented students. The Regents promised to integrate O4All into the UC school system by November. When November came, no plan was to be implemented or shown to the UC students, and sadly, no plan was to come. 

In the face of the countless marches, rallies, teach-ins, and advocacy events, the UC Regents voted against the O4All implementation on January 26, 2024. University of California President Michael Drake concluded that if O4All were approved but discovered to violate federal law, the university might face civil fines, criminal penalties, or the possibility of being banned from federal contracts. The board voted to postpone deliberations on the proposal until the following year. However, Ahilan Arulanantham, a UCLA Law professor, argued that “the only real [legal] risk the university has is the federal government can sue in court to try to stop the program from running… nobody is going to jail or getting fined.” 

Given that this decision affects many of our undocumented UC Berkeley students, hearing their stories is essential to understanding its implications. Leonardo “Leo” Rodriguez (he/him) is president of the IDEAS club and a senior transfer student majoring in Political Economy with a concentration in inequality. Leo immigrated with his mom from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the United States when he was five. Leo remembers crossing the Mexican border wearing a Madagascar tracksuit and getting his jacket caught on a fence. He also remembers trying his first American candy, Skittles, inside the truck where he was transferred with everyone inside packed like sardines. 

Leo has been an undocumented student with DACA status since 2016, which means he doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship. The work authorizations of DACA are temporary and uncertain, which is why students like Leo need permanent, equal, guaranteed access to work study. All his life, Leo believed the lie that if he followed the rules, excelled academically, and pretended to blend in, he would be given equal opportunities. 

“Our community as undocumented people have been taught to be a certain way, and by being that way, our humanity will be recognized…,” he told me. O4ALL was the first time Leo saw the truth with “undocumented people, and specifically students, completely challenging everything and every expectation that was held on to us…what O4ALL represents for me is that we have been human all along and that it didn’t take for us to be the best student, to go to the number one public university in the world to be recognized.” The campaign provided the language, legal framework, heart, and humanity to empower undocumented students to better their lives. 

At the culmination of his work on the campaign, Leo found himself in the conference room as the Regents deliberated their final decision on January 26, 2024. Leo tried his hardest to hold onto the hope that the Regents would recognize undocumented students’ immense sacrifices, such as the three-day hunger strike which started on January 23 and ended on the 26th. Leo shared that he accidentally started the fast a day early since he forgot to eat as he was busy attending UC Regents meetings. Despite not eating for almost three days, Leo’s hunger for opportunity was greater than his physical hunger.

At the meeting, students sat down anxiously, waiting for a decision with duct tape covering their mouths that read “Feed Me Opportunity.” 

A student activist anxiously awaits a decision at the January 26th meeting.
Source:  Martin do Nascimento, KQED

“We decided to demonstrate in a way that was different from any way we had done before…to cover our mouths and write something on it to represent that we had not eaten. Every single day, they broke their lunch eating in front of us as we were starving.” 

Unfortunately, Leo’s hope soon turned to disappointment when President Drake decided to delay the final O4ALL decision for a year. 

“It was a patronizing, heartbreaking experience to string us along an entire year, have us answer every single question they had, and then turn around and say, ‘We’re scared for you; you might be in danger.’ But I ask [President Drake], ‘Am I not in danger? Are our peers not in danger when they’re not eating, when their accounts are frozen, and they can’t even use the services that this university has provided them because they can’t pay for it?‘ It was patronizing at best to hear Drake stand there in front of a coalition of undocumented students and say to our faces, ‘I know better’ because that’s what it was [the decision], it was an ‘I know better’ – and that’s what was at its core the most cynical thing about it all.” 

Though UC President Regent Drake cited his fears of a possible legal case resulting from the approval of O4ALL, Leo explained that the coalition of undocumented students and immigration lawyers were part of all the UC Regent meetings and answered every question, including the legal ones. Leo hypothesized that perhaps the legality of O4ALL isn’t the main motive to delay the program but that the decision can be attributed to this year’s presidential election. 

“Their real excuse is that [the decision has come] during an election and that if a Republican president comes into office, they’ll turn their scrutiny directly on to undocumented students.” Hence, Drake’s claim that the “delay,” not the “disapproval,” of O4ALL was a favor to the undocumented students so that they faced no backlash from the newly elected president. 

According to Leo, this is just another excuse to stall political advocacy. “What will one year do?” he asks.

Too often, the undocumented community faces delays or pauses with any campaign, bill, or program that they are advocating for, and O4ALL is yet another example. However, with every pause and denial, the undocumented community does not give up. “If someone says no, you’re asking the wrong person,” Leo insists. Days after the UC Regents decided to delay O4ALL for a year, assembly member David Alvarez contacted the undocumented student coalition and asked them to write a new bill, Assembly Bill 2586. 

Twenty days later, on February 15, 2024, Leo stood on the steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento to launch this new bill, which now includes not only UC campuses but also California State Universities and California Community Colleges. Immediately after the bill’s introduction, Leo shared that the bill already had 10+ cosponsors, including State Senate Majority Leader Lena Gonzalez. Leo is glad that O4All is in the hands of the Assembly, has Senate support, and will receive the import and attention it deserves. “We’re not political tokens. We are human beings with human lives, communities, friends, and peers.”

Leo (second from left) posing with other student activists.
Source: @ucla_cilp on Instagram

Leo is one of the many undocumented students fighting for the Opportunity for All Act, and his story is just one of thousands at UC Berkeley. UC undocumented students are no longer willing to settle for less than they deserve, especially when they’re fighting for equal opportunity for all. Their hungry voices, resilient footsteps, zealous fists, and unwavering humanity will obtain opportunity.

Featured Image Source: Julia Zhou, Daily Bruin

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