Hugo, a 19-year-old sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, knows the morning hours well. Often this summer, he was up at 4:30 a.m. to help his mother pick up flowers in Salinas, Watsonville or Half Moon Bay.
Once there, they would carefully stack roses, sunflowers, lilies, irises and orchids in the back of their old white family van before heading back to Oakland to make bouquets.
Later they would sell the flowers at different sites in the Mission District and Oakland.
“Since Hugo was eight he insisted to come with me to sell flowers,” his mother Lidia said.
As the son of undocumented immigrants, Hugo’s school break is one not experienced by most Americans. That can be said for most of his life.
Conveniences like a cell phone or a driver’s license are out of reach for Hugo — the cell phone because it’s too expensive and a license because undocumented immigrants are forbidden from holding one.
“Even our social life is different. We don’t have money to go clubbing,” he said without bitterness.
This year is particularly significant as Hugo and the estimated 3,500 to 5,000 other undocumented students attending California colleges and universities await the Supreme Court’s decision on the legality of AB 540.
The 2001 state legislation allows undocumented students who meet specific requirements, including having spent three years in a California high school, to pay in-state tuition fees. The students, however, are excluded from seeking state or federal financial aid.
“That’s the only way we can pay and we can barely afford it,” said Hugo, referring to in-state tuition that he cobbles together with scholarships and his earnings.
The 2005 lawsuit was filed on behalf of out-of-state students who pay higher fees; it challenges AB 540 as a violation of federal law.
Each year, 65,000 undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children with their parents graduate from high school. Hugo is among the 5 to 10 percent who pursue a college degree. In-state tuition is the only way he and others could consider going to college.
“I understand their point but the reality is that we don’t have their privileges,” Hugo said, referring to the plaintiffs. He also says he realizes he has had more opportunities than his older siblings.
On a recent ride to Half Moon Bay, Lidia remembered her first years in California when she didn’t get paid for months of work, or when the family had to split apart to find jobs. Her eyes filled with tears with the memory of one such incident when her older son Cesar was exploited and abused at the age of 10. A relative had promised to send him to school and take care of him in exchange for his help. The promise was a lie.
“I was the best in my class. I wanted to be a doctor,” said Cesar, 28, recalling the past while sitting next to the flowers he now sells. Far away from his parents, Cesar had to work to survive. For his 2-year-old daughter and the baby his wife is expecting, he said, life will be different.
Hugo is the family’s model for that different life. The youngest of Lidia’s children, he is the first in the family to go to college. “I was asked to join gangs, but my mom often talked to me about what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “I was never interested in joining.”
A product of Oakland’s high schools, Hugo is studying health science and community studies, but wants to become a pediatrician.
But during vacations it’s back to work at the family’s business.
“Hugo helps me on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Anytime he has vacation he comes to work,” said Lidia. The truth is, she said, all her children have been hard workers.
Hugo understands why his older siblings never opted for college. “If nowadays immigrant children aren’t aware of their options, just imagine 10 years ago,” he said. “They didn’t know.”
In a good year, Lidia can sell anywhere from $30 to $200 in flowers a day. These past two years, sales have dropped to half that. Her husband returned to Mexico a year ago and it’s unclear if he will be back. Her other children have their own families and she works to support herself and help Hugo with tuition.
In the meantime, Hugo hopes the Dream Act will pass.
The federal Dream Act to put undocumented students on the path to legal residency was first introduced in 2003, but has never made it out of committee. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed the California Dream Act.
Still, Hugo looks forward to the day when he can go from being an “undocumented youth” to a “legal U.S. resident” and have the right to access educational opportunities and work as a doctor in the community where he grew up.
“I wish he can make it,” Lidia said.