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UCLA student and illegal immigration

February 8, 2009 |  1:31 pm

The front-page article, a Column One, was about a freshman struggling to make it in her earliest days at UCLA. The box accompanying the story said in part: "This is the first in a series of occasional articles about a UCLA student, in this country illegally and largely without financial or academic support, during her freshman year."

The very words "illegal immigrant" bring criticism (many readers argue that "illegal alien" is more accurate; some say there's less bias in "undocumented individuals"). Articles focusing on a person or specific situation inevitably bring larger reaction.

In this case, nearly 300 readers commented on the Feb. 2 story of 18-year-old Karina De La Cruz, who was born in Mexico, lives in San Pedro and is the first in her family to go to college. About half of those who responded said they sympathized with the girl, although some of them said they still thought illegal immigrants shouldn't attend public colleges. (Typical response: "I feel sorry for the girl you wrote about. But she still shouldn't be taking public funds for her education.") Others wondered why an article was written focused on someone in this country illegally rather than many others who face uphill battles in school and financially.

"Incredible story," wrote reader JoAnn Burciaga. "My heart just breaks for this young woman trying so hard to change her life. My husband and I would like to know how we can help her. Please let us know if a fund has been created. Is there a mentoring program available?"

Jean Goodrick of Canoga Park had another reaction: "There are thousands of citizens (including my own children) who are trying to attend college and need financial assistance but can’t get in, much less get financial aid. Try writing about them, or perhaps the returning vets who can’t find jobs."

"It's not either/or," responds California Editor David Lauter. "The thinking on why we did the story is pretty straightforward: illegal immigration is a major issue of public concern in California. One aspect of that issue, which has been very hotly debated, is whether students who are undocumented should be allowed in California's public colleges and universities. That issue has been debated in the Legislature and is currently the subject of a court case challenging California's tuition policies."

His and assigning editor Beth Shuster's idea was to explore that public debate by finding out what the day-to-day experience was of an undocumented student.

Reporter Jason Song's own curiousity dovetailed with the assignment. Song covers the Los Angeles Unified School District and says he has long wanted to paint a picture for readers of how overwhelming college can be for a freshman who is unaccustomed to consistent study habits and homework load. Song found De La Cruz through his reporting on LAUSD, and covered her for the last nine months — from right after she got accepted to college to her first days at UCLA.

Says Shuster, "As Jason reported this story, the other angle that emerged was that UCLA admitted a freshman who did not meet the same academic requirements of most of the students there, she had a lower GPA, lower standardized test scores and placed lower in her high school ranking.... So the story was about the trials that this girl faces as both an illegal immigrant without the same access to state and federal financial aid, but also about the challenges someone like this faces in other areas as well ... academic, etc. I think all of this made the story richer."

A number of readers said The Times shows bias by covering illegal immigration in such a personal way; there's the chance readers see sentimentality by doing day-in-the-life-of coverage (as an editor said in an entry on this journal last year about coverage of illegal immigration, "once you introduce a real human being, things tend to get complicated").

Several more reader responses are below.

Brittany Dyer of Venice says she grew up in "a typical, white, conservative suburb an hour northwest of Chicago" and for her, college was mandatory, and the understanding was that she would be paying for her own education. Dyer wrote that she attended four universities in four years to get her degree, struggled with grades and still faces "the daunting process" of paying off thousands of dollars in loans, despite getting some hard-earned grant money. "I'll admit when I read the headline about an illegal immigrant attending college I rolled my eyes, thinking 'oh great another one sponging off the system.'

"I was expecting to read a story about how though De La Cruz is an illegal immigrant and her family as struggled to maintain a life in America, De La Cruz academically excelled and was awarded grants and scholarships to fund her UCLA education. Boy, was I wrong. I can only begin to imagine De La Cruz's daily struggle to support herself financially while maintaining  a full academic load.

"What this all comes down to is a tremendous respect for someone I judged before I should have. If I had the means I'd fund her education. She seems to be one who certainly wouldn't take it for granted, like I know I did (even as I begin to pay it off). I just hope she continues to carry on with the persistence to better her life. Regardless of her citizenship, she is one we should all admire for her work ethic and determination."

Others called it a "sob story." From Brad Madiuk of Aliso Viejo: "I am disgusted by the way the L.A. Times has taken a situation that shouldn't even exist, and sensationalized it. A girl who was given EVERYTHING, has the audacity to complain and be depressed? The LA Times publishing this article says one thing: We support illegal immigration, and we support the USA fully supporting them. So much so in fact, that we will make you feel guilty about not agreeing with us." Madiuk identified himself as a legal immigrant and signed his note, "A disgruntled hard working 'no excuses' American."

Other readers simply asked the reporter if De La Cruz was still in school. Says Song: "The circumstances dictate how many stories we write. I'm hoping to write at least one more this academic year (or more) depending on what happens."

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