About 500 people gathered Friday at a Fresno State rally, most of them in support of federal legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
The crowd at the university's Free Speech Area cheered loudly when speakers, including university president John Welty and student body president Pedro Ramirez, voiced their support of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.
The legislation pending in Congress would allow some longtime residents to become legal U.S. residents after they spend two years in college or the military.
The rally took on added significance when it came to light earlier this week that Ramirez is an illegal immigrant.
Ramirez, 22, told the crowd he will not resign as president.
Though he has become a national focal point of the immigration debate in recent days, Ramirez said Friday's gathering was not about him.
"This rally is to promote the DREAM Act and the dream of future students," he told the crowd.
Ramirez, who helped organize the rally, said he was born in Mexico and brought across the border by his family when he was 3.
Welty issued a statement earlier this week saying that Ramirez notified him and others about his immigration status shortly after the student election last spring.
Qualifications for Associated Students, the university's student government organization, do not address citizenship status, so Ramirez was not prohibited from running for office, officials said.
Ramirez 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.
Some rally attendees opposed the act, including one student who is calling for Ramirez to step down as student body president.
Neil O'Brien, who held a sign that read "Pedro The Usurper Must Resign," said Ramirez's presence in the U.S. is illegitimate and therefore so is his presidency.
"The bylaws of the university do not trump the laws of the nation," said O'Brien, 27, a Fresno State senior.
O'Brien said this is not a race issue for him, noting that his parents legally immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina about 30 years ago.
Welty said passage of the act is long overdue.
"It's also time for Fresno State to lead the way," he said.
Welty and other speakers told the crowd to contact congressional members and urge them to pass the DREAM Act.
Adriana Sanchez, 22, a Fresno State senior and rally organizer, said she was pleased to hear Welty voice his support of the act at the rally.
"For him to come out and speak in favor of the DREAM Act makes me very happy that he's the president of the university I attend," she said. "I hope other university presidents follow his example."
Raúl Moreno, the university's migrant services coordinator who spoke in favor of the DREAM Act, said, "Those of us who believe in human rights, the time has come."
As Moreno spoke, a student, William Flores-Lemus, shouted out, "Raúl, you don't speak for me."
Moreno, in reply, said to the crowd, "I speak for everybody," which brought a loud applause.
Flores-Lemus, 37, a Fresno State graduate student, said he came to the United States legally from El Salvador in the late 1970s. He said the DREAM Act is not fair because it would give "preferential treatment" to some immigrants.
Lori Nakaguchi, 47, a Fresno State graduate, who opposes the act, said a country that does not have a rule of law disintegrates. Immigrants must follow the law, she said.
"I don't care where they come from," she said, just "come legally."