Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Growing up in the Florence-Firestone area of South Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I didn’t hear a lot of talk about Dreamers or undocumented students. In a community that was 86 percent Latino and 13 percent African-American, and where less than 2.5 percent of residents had earned a bachelor’s degree, most of the focus was on running from Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, la Migra, or a gang fight. Everyone just did their best to survive. There was talk about who had a green card or who was a “wetback,” but no one really cared. Everyone was family, except, of course, the Sheriff or la Migra. My family was typical. My dad was a U.S. citizen from Texas who was schooled in Mexico, and my mom immigrated from Mexico with her three sisters. I had uncles and family friends who ran the gamut when it came to immigration status. The one thing that everyone had in common, in addition looking for any excuse to hold a barbeque, was that they all came to California to make a better life for their children and loved ones. Although the Florence-Firestone neighborhood was hardly Mayberry, it was better than what everyone had left behind. It was California.
It wasn’t until the days of Governor Pete Wilson that I ever felt uncomfortable about being a Mexican-American, or growing up with family and friends who were suddenly considered “aliens” bad for California. It was a confusing time, and it forced many children of immigrants like myself to reconcile what it meant to be the son of an immigrant with being a native Californian. Ironically, as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, I visit that past every time I walk into a board meeting and think about how one former regent who served in the 1990s helped shape a negative attitude toward students who shared my heritage. That past, in fact, shapes my service as a Regent today.
Although California survived that period, there remains haunting shadows of that past which are clearly visible in this new Trump era, an era in which a growing number of anti-immigration sentiment, much of which is based not on facts but on emotion, is taking hold. Sadly, such sentiment ignores the facts—that our undocumented immigrants are critical to our economy, are serving in our military to protect our freedoms, and are working hard to become our future leaders. They are hardly a drain on society. In California alone, the state’s estimated 2.7 million undocumented immigrants are paying an estimated $3 billion in taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
According to the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, those who have been accepted into the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are an average age of 22 and are employed. Most are still in school. Nearly 1 in 5 are seeking an advanced degree. And in California, the number of DACA recipients enrolled in colleges and universities stands at more than 72,000, which means that nearly one-third of all DACA recipients in the state are in the process of earning a college degree or certificate.
What’s more, because they are better educated and are among our most productive workers, deporting the estimated 750,000 DACA recipients nationwide would cost the federal government $60 billion, along with $280 billion in losses to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
The memories of my experiences with anti-immigrant rhetoric remind me every day of the importance to make clear to the undocumented students in the California Community Colleges system that they are welcomed and valued. They need to know that just as California survived Propositions 187 and 209, they will survive the nonsense of “the wall.” The Dreamers in our colleges today are hungry to give back, to make our state even greater, and to raise their families in the light of the California Dream. Our colleges give first, second, and third chances to all Californians, and because of the struggles of all our students, including Dreamers, our communities are better places to live.
Human potential is everywhere throughout our state. Potential does not recognize residency or legal status. For many, coming to California was not a choice they themselves made. And capturing their potential is key to our future. Within our communities resides the next scientist who will find a cure for cancer, the next transformational artist, the next Steve Jobs, or the next governor of California. Why wouldn’t we educate and cultivate the potential of every resident in California?
I am privileged to serve in a system of higher education that believes in this potential and that proudly proclaims that we serve the top 100 percent of students in California regardless or immigration status, skin color, religion, or how or whom they love. California community colleges are the gateway to a higher education for the majority of people in our state and serve as the state’s engine of economic mobility. That is why our colleges are so important to the future of all Californians and why the future of California is so closely tied to our ability to capture the potential of all our students.
 “State and Local Tax Contributions of Undocumented Californians: County-by- County Data,” 24 April 2017, https://itep.org/state-and-local-tax-contributions-of-undocumented-californians-county-by–county-data/#.WQdqr4grKJA
 Ike Brannon and Logan Albright, “The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Repealing DACA,” Cato at Liberty, 18 January 2017, https://www.cato.org/blog/economic-fiscal-impact-repealing-daca.
Eloy Ortiz Oakley has served as Chancellor for the California Community Colleges since 19 December 2016. Before this, he served as the Superintendent-President of the Long Beach Community College District from 2007, where he led one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation and provided statewide and national leadership on the issue of improving the education outcomes of historically underrepresented students. For his efforts, the James Irvine Foundation recognized him with their 2014 Leadership Award. In 2014, Governor Brown appointed Oakley to the University of California Board of Regents and in November 2016, President Obama recognized him as a White House Champion of Change for his work promoting and supporting the national college promise movement.
Copyright: © 2017 Eloy Ortiz Oakley. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/