Fresno State student leader's immigration status leads to rally

November 17, 2010 

Pedro Ramirez is best known as Fresno State's student body president.

Far less public is his status as an illegal immigrant -- at least, until this week. That's when an anonymous e-mail, sent to The Bee and other media outlets, prompted Ramirez to confirm publicly that fact.

Now he's helping organize an on-campus rally Friday in support of the federal DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The legislation pending in Congress would allow some longtime residents like him to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military.

"The DREAM Act itself symbolizes what it is to be an American, which is our goal," said Ramirez, a junior majoring in political science and agricultural economics. "We want to contribute to the United States, and utilize the degrees and skills we gained, to make it a better place."

Wednesday, reaction on campus to Ramirez's legal status was mild. A receptionist at the Associated Students Inc. student government office said she'd fielded some calls -- nearly all from journalists seeking an interview with Ramirez.

Many students said they didn't know who Ramirez was and hadn't formed an opinion. But a few people on campus said his legal status didn't matter.

Kenneth Russell, 20, of Fresno, said he didn't have a problem with how Ramirez arrived in the U.S. -- adding "the more people, the more love." Psychology professor Michael Botwin said he attended two meetings with Ramirez on Wednesday and the subject of his legal status didn't surface.

Botwin called it a tough issue, particularly as the state reduces funding to public universities.

"I think people like him [Pedro] who are brought here have challenges that are extraordinary," Botwin said. "It's kind of hard to deny someone who's been here that long an opportunity. ... It's a sticky issue."

Ramirez, 22, of Tulare said he was born in Mexico and brought across the border by his family when he was 3. It was only as a high school senior that Ramirez learned his situation and grasped what that meant.

He couldn't get a job. He couldn't join the military. He couldn't qualify for public financial aid.

The e-mail that prompted Ramirez to acknowledge his status questioned why he wasn't being paid as Associated Students president. Ramirez said he waived the pay of about $800 a month because he knew he couldn't collect it.

Ramirez said he didn't realize there would be a salary when he ran last spring. Associated Students qualifications do not address citizenship status, so Ramirez was not prohibited from running for office, officials said.

Wednesday, Fresno State President John Welty issued a statement saying that Ramirez notified him and others about his immigration status shortly after the election.

Ramirez said he is paying for college through private scholarships that don't ask about residency status and through odd jobs such as mowing lawns.

He is enrolled at Fresno State under Assembly Bill 540, a state law that allows illegal immigrants who have attended a California high school for three years to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. The state Supreme Court this week upheld the statute, which applies to an estimated 25,000 students.

Welty commended Ramirez and other students who are following state law as they seek higher education.

"I hope our campus and community will remember that diverse colleges and universities better prepare students for the diverse workplace of the future," he said.

Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs, said there likely are several hundred students on campus under AB 540. To his knowledge, Ramirez is the first undocumented student to serve as president.

Shane Moreman, a communication professor and president of Fresno State's Latina/o Faculty and Staff Association, said there isn't any way to know how many undocumented students are on campus, because many fear repercussions if they reveal that information.

The reporter can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6312.

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