Undocumented Immigrant Interns at State Capitol

Among his duties while working in Sacramento was to help research proposed legislation.

At the age of 21, Sergio has an undying love of politics.

He has already interned for two state lawmakers and hopes to pursue a career in politics.

He plans to commit himself to changing his community, but there is one catch: Sergio is in the country illegally; he can’t even vote.

"It is something that I am really passionate about, but because of my position, it gets really frustrating," Sergio said.

A student at San Diego State University, Sergio graduated from San Diego High School with a 4.3 GPA and entered SDSU with a full, privately funded scholarship.

Sergio is an active student leader at SDSU. Over the past few years, he has traveled to Sacramento for various paid fellowships, including two at the state Capitol with California State Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (AD-56) and Assemblyman Marty Block (AD-78).

How does a student fearful of being caught and deported end up roaming the halls of the state Capitol?

The answer can be found in Assembly Bill 540 and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

Undocumented students like Sergio can enroll in public California universities and community colleges without fear of persecution.

Sergio’s outgoing personality has helped him make several connections and friendships, which have helped him jump over obstacles that could stop him from completing his education.

At his request, we are not using Sergio's real name to protect his identity. We came across Sergio while doing a story on students whose lives would be impacted by the passage of California's DREAM Act.

Sergio is one of an estimated 600 illegal immigrants attending college in California. Assembly Bill 540 allows undocumented students to attend college, and the DREAM Act allows them to get financial aid.

"I always figure out a way," Sergio said. "At some point, it has been working within the resources that I have. I have been grateful to make connections and make some really great friendships."

He says his friends tease him about going to work in politics but not being able to vote.

"I remember having a conversation with some of my friends and they were like, ‘How is it that you are such a political freak and you haven't been able to vote here in the United States or in Mexico?’" Sergio said.

"And I'm like, 'There are other ways in which I can actually influence the political atmosphere with a more direct way.'

Sergio spent this past July in the Sacramento office of his local assembly member Marty Block.

Sergio used his connections to find a place to stay during his internship. He was lucky enough to find a place to stay with a staff member of a high-ranking assembly member.

"When I was working with Assemblyman Mendoza or Assemblyman Block's office, I was actually advising the member on how to vote on certain things by collecting information" he said, "by analyzing bills, by doing things that other people are not able to do."

Sergio’s fellowships, both of which came with a $3,000 stipend, were administered by two private non-profit organizations, the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project and the Equality California Institute, and were funded by Comcast, which owns this website and television station.

During his time in Sacramento, Sergio spent time working with Assemblyman Block’s legislative director Margaret Pena.

"It was analyzing the bills, the positions and how he would feel about it and all that kind of stuff," he said. "It was awesome.”

Assembly Bill 540 allows students who meet residency requirements to pay in-state tuition regardless of their citizenship. FERPA makes sure all student records are sealed and used for educational purposes only.

Schools are not responsible for checking the citizenship of their students.

“We are not immigration officials. We don't go after people,” said Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services for the San Diego Community College District. “We have to keep all students’ information strictly confidential. We won't even provide it to law enforcement without a subpoena.”

During Sergio’s first fellowship with Assembly Member Mendoza, he says he made it known he was an undocumented student.

"On that first fellowship, I sent my application, (and) I said that I was undocumented," he said. "I actually implied it. I do not say it directly, but people figured it out. And then they knew that I was undocumented. Pretty much all the staff at the Capitol and even the Member read it."

In his next fellowship with Assembly Member Block, Sergio says he did not disclose his citizenship status.

"In my second fellowship with the EQCAI (Equality California Institute), I didn't mention it and it wasn't an issue that was addressed whatsoever," Sergio said. "At some point, it didn't need to be addressed."

Assembly members are responsible for hiring their own interns and checking their qualification and background, said Jon Waldie, chief administrative officer with the Assembly Rules Committee.

“We leave that up to the office to make those inquires and try to find out their background,” Waldie said. "In this day and age of people asking more for less, interns are a popular alternative.”

Waldie says unless an individual is going to become a full-fledged employee, they probably wouldn’t catch the person’s citizenship status.

“If he was going to be an employee we would find out, but an intern, that would be highly unlikely,” Waldie said.

When asked for a comment on Sergio's internship with his staff, Assemblyman Block sent NBC a written statement saying that he considers offering internships his duty to the next generation.

“Part of my responsibility as a legislator is to mentor students through various unpaid scholastic internship programs,” Block said in a statement.

“I have hosted dozens of young college students, recent college graduates, and even high school students in my capitol and district offices," he wrote. "It is a part of preparing our next generation for a role in politics and exposing them to what happens behind the scenes of government.”

Assemblyman Mendoza did not respond to requests for comment.

Under federal law, if either assembly member had called the school to check the legal status of their intern, the school officials would not have been able to provide the information.

"I would not be able to tell the assembly member," Neault said. “In fact, I have had an assembly member call and question AB 540. FERPA trumps everything.”

Unless assembly members require U.S. citizenship as part of their internship programs, the students would not be required to disclose their citizenship status.

Students within the San Diego Community College are provided with a list of requirements for all internships before they apply, Neault said.

Sergio hopes to eventually become an assembly member or even governor.

“I do want to dedicate my life for public service," he said. "But because of the situation I am in right now, it is almost impossible for me to do it.”

The key for Sergio is to finish college and then apply for his U.S. citizenship. He wants to wait for his diploma before taking the risk of being deported if his application is denied.

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