Tuesday, March 28, 2006

UCLA Students Face Threat of Deportation

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March 20, 2006

By ADAM FOXMAN, Daily Bruin
(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES -- Mario Escobar's boisterous laughter dies out as
he tells his story. As other University
of California at Los Angeles students focus on their final exams this
week, he also has to cope with the
possibility of being deported to a violent country.
"It's crazy; it's a hell," said Escobar, a fourth-year English and
Spanish student.

Escobar is one of dozens of UCLA students who are undocumented, meaning
that they do not have the
papers necessary to be legal residents of the United States. While
is no official count of such students,
an on-campus support group for undocumented students has nearly 60

Like many undocumented students, Escobar came to the United States at
early age: He fled to the
United States from El Salvador after that country's civil war, which
lasted from 1979 to 1992. His father,
grandmother and cousins were killed in the conflict.

Escobar has applied for political asylum, but he has already been
once, he said. The denial came
nearly a year ago. His second hearing with the immigration court is
scheduled for March 28, and if this
petition is rejected, he could be deported to El Salvador.

The prospect of deportation fills him with frustration and fear. And
while otherwise confident and articulate
in conversation, Escobar lapses into heavy silence at the mention of
his case.

"I refuse to think about it because if I do, then I know it will bring
down," he said.

Escobar, 28, has spent much of his life in the United States.

In addition to working his way to within a year of finishing a double
major at UCLA, he has started a family;
founded a fledgling publishing company called Cuzcatlan Press;
a volume of original poetry in
Spanish called "Gritos Interiores" ("Cries from Within"); and started a
literary magazine to give a voice to
what he calls the Central American diaspora. He published his book in
2005, and the first issue of the
magazine, called "La Nueva Tendencia" ("The New Tendency"), should be
stores by April.

As his court date approaches and he faces the possibility of being
out of his adopted country,
Escobar said he feels dislocated and trapped.

"I feel like an outcast, I feel marginalized," he said.

He is also frightened by the prospect of returning to El Salvador,
because more than a decade after the end
of that county's civil war, it remains a violent place.

In a 1999 report done for the World Bank, Amnesty International found
that more than 100 people out of
every 100,000 are killed in homicides each year in El Salvador. And in
1998, more than 200 in 100,000
Salvadorian men ages 15-34 were killed in homicides. By comparison,
California had 6.8 murders per
100,000 residents in 2003, according to the New York Times Almanac for

Escobar's situation is uncommon at UCLA, but it resonates with many
immigration issues being discussed on
a national level.

Lawmakers working on a major immigration bill, which is currently in
Senate Judiciary Committee, are
grappling with questions of how to cope with the millions of illegal
immigrants currently in the United States
and what to do with future newcomers.

Questions of residency are also highly charged at California's public
universities, where some undocumented
students pay in-state tuition as a result of AB 540, a California state
law that allows students who have
attended a California high school for three or more years to pay

Though some undocumented students qualify to pay in-state tuition under
AB 540, they cannot receive
federal or state financial aid under current California law. Still, the
law has led some to argue that
undocumented students are taking resources which should go to U.S.

A class-action lawsuit filed in December against California public
colleges and universities charged that by
allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, the
were discriminating against U.S.
citizens. If the lawsuit succeeds, AB 540 could be repealed.

One story among many

While the particulars of Escobar's case are unique, his experience as
undocumented student is common,
said Roberto Manc'a, a professor of literature at Los Angeles Trade
Technical College.

"By telling Mario's story, (one is) telling the story of thousands of
other students," said Manc'a, who became
friends with Escobar when Escobar was studying at LATTC.

As Salvadorians, Escobar and Manc'a bonded over their common

Like several of Escobar's other friends, Manc'a described him as gifted
and inspirational. But Manc'a said the
uncertainty of being without immigration papers weighs on his young
friend as it does on many
undocumented students.

It's like "a cloud that won't go away; a sense of hopelessness," Manc'a

But Escobar and UCLA's other undocumented students have something
said is unique in his
experience: a support group.

The student-run group, called Ideas UCLA, seeks to provide a safe
environment for students to talk about a
subject often taboo even among friends and family -- their immigration

The group has about 30 active members, and another 30 on its mailing
list, said Saray Gonzalez, the group's
co-chairwoman. Ideas UCLA's work to educate high school students about
540 is funded by the
Community Activities Committee, which oversees funding for off-campus

Most, but not all, of Ideas' members are undocumented. Most are also
Latino, but the group has a member
each from Poland, Vietnam and Russia. The term undocumented is used
generally. For example, some
undocumented students may have work permits but not legal residency, or
may be in the process of
becoming naturalized.

Members help each other with everything from school to transportation,
work with UCLA staff members who
can advise them about subjects such as scholarships, and work to inform
undocumented high school students
about the opportunities available to them.

Students in the group rarely face deportation, but at least one group
member other than Escobar has faced
deportment proceedings, said Gonzalez, a fourth-year chemistry student.
The student who faced
deportation, now an alumnus, was ultimately able to stay in the United

Though few UCLA students have faced deportation, the slim possibility
that someone might place a call to
immigration authorities encourages many undocumented students to hide
their status, Gonzalez said.

But the top concerns cited by members of Ideas UCLA included the
perception of undocumented
individuals and financial difficulties.

"Being undocumented is highly stigmatizing," Gonzalez said.

When Ideas UCLA was founded in 2003, it gave form to a community many
undocumented students didn't
know they had.

"Now that Ideas exists it actually makes people more comfortable doing
lot of things. It gives people a
place to talk about their stories and know they are not alone," said
Tran a fourth-year American
literature and culture student who is a member of the group.

Manc'a, who often encounters undocumented students at LATTC, said the
information Escobar gave him
about the club has been a boon to his students.

"Knowing that other students are in a similar situation makes them
that anything is possible. It makes
an incredible difference," he said.

Waiting for resolution

For all the similarities and differences Escobar's story bears toward
those of other undocumented students,
as he studies for finals this quarter he is also just a man who wants
know what will happen to him.

"The war (in El Salvador) ended in 1992, and still being in this
situation, I'm tired. I want this nightmare to
be over. I want to know what it feels like to be a citizen of a
he said.

As he waits for his deportation hearing, the literature student and
author takes solace in writing.

Books have always been both an escape and a tool to deal with the past,
he said.

"Literature has been, as we say in Spanish, 'la guarida' -- a safe
... There, I can create my own
world," Escobar said.

Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a UCLA Chicana/o studies professor, once told
Escobar that by writing he could gain
authorship over his own life, and he believes he has.

Within the 115 pages of his book "Gritos Interiores," Escobar includes
poems that he wrote as long ago as
1992, and as recently as last year.

One of his early poems recalls the layered Russian doll, called a
matrioska, he carried as a child, wishing he
could hide inside it like one of the interior dolls as the sounds of
burst into his home in El Salvador.
Roughly translated from the Spanish in which it was written, the poem

"I walked, I walked, I walked, and at last I found you matrioska / Open
your body and let me hide inside

In a more recent poem, Escobar described his feeling of desperation.

Seated against a pillar outside Rolfe Hall on Friday, he translated it:

"I have walked through the desert, burned, mutilated, and dead / I walk
like a shadow, hungry for an
eternal / smile / Giving a neglected cry / and rowing against the /

Manc'a said in the nearly five years he has known Escobar, the poet has
progressed from an imitator of
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to an author with a powerful voice of his
And now, as he faces the
possibility of deportation, Escobar is working to put out "La Nueva
Tendencia" to give other Central
American writers a place to tell their stories.

"In a way Mario has been saying what I have wanted to say for a long
time," Manc'a said. "That we (Central
Americans) have a voice."

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